Contrary to most, this reviewer is an enormous Mel Gibson apologist, and it’s tragic that every nuance of his private life has been broadcast to the oversensitive public who subsequently judge the man on isolated incidents without knowing the proper context. With his personal demons under the scrutiny of the public eye, the star is now shunned by an industry who once adored him. It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that Gibson’s first movie since the infamous leaked recordings is 2011’s The Beaver, which has Gibson playing someone who loses it all and sets out to rediscover the man he used to be. In spite of its lukewarm critical reception, this is a wonderful indie drama which touches upon serious issues with sensitivity and maturity. Jodie Foster’s direction evinces genuine care and passion, and Gibson’s performance at the centre of the story is absolutely magnificent.
An aging husband and father, Walter Black (Gibson) has hit rock bottom. He’s running his late father’s toy company into the ground, his marriage is crumbling, and he’s severely depressed. His long-suffering wife Meredith (Foster) can no longer live with her empty shell of a husband, and asks Walter to leave. While wallowing in drunken despair and contemplating suicide, Walter finds himself communicating with his alter ego — a beaver puppet on his hand that he salvaged from a dumpster — who promises to save Walter’s pathetic life. Soon, Walter immerses himself into his alter ego, communicating with those around him solely via the beaver puppet. As the forthright, confident Beaver, Walter saves his toy company from collapse and begins to repair his family life. However, use of the puppet soon begins to take its toll on Walter’s fragile sanity.
Initially, it seems as if the puppet is the key to Walter’s salvation. As the Beaver, Walter is more dynamic, more lively, and more capable at handling life’s challenges. But Walter grows progressively weaker as the Beaver grows stronger, and when Meredith forces her husband to be himself, he returns to his shaky, empty mental state. Not everyone will be willing to go along with the puppet device, but it worked flawlessly for this reviewer. There’s one particular scene in which Walter (as the Beaver) offers metaphysical insight into the human condition on “The Today Show” that’s both shrewd and moving. Some moments throughout the film admittedly feel a bit too on-the-nose and scripted (a graduation speech is a key offender), not to mention corny (“We’re talking about a miracle!“), but the picture has more hits than misses.
For a good 45 minutes after Walter adopts the puppet, the Beaver is generally rather flippant — Walter reintegrates himself into his family unit wonderfully (though his eldest son resents the concept), and Walter reinvigorates his business in a heart-warming fashion. It’s enjoyable to watch Walter interact strictly through his puppet avatar, and several moments of comedy flow from this. But while it has its light moments, The Beaver is not a comedy, as the film is more concerned with depicting depression in a realistic fashion. The film explores the repercussions on relationships and families when severe depression envelops someone who consequently loses all hope. Depression can reverberate throughout others, bringing a depressed person’s loved ones down as well. Foster is a relatively inexperienced director, but the tonal changes are surprisingly assured; she has managed to generate a delicate balancing act between dark comedy and powerful drama. Foster is also aided by Marcelo Zarvos’ often engaging, offbeat score, though a few sound-bites fail to sit right (intense action movie-esque music during the emotional scene in which Walter struggles to overcome the Beaver’s grasp?).
Mel Gibson’s presence may turn some people off the film, but all of his baggage actually makes it easier for us to identify with his character’s spiritual woes. Gibson’s essaying of Walter is stunning, as his face is etched with palpable pain and sadness. He really threw himself into this part, and he’s fantastic as both the depressed Walter and the brash Beaver (whose cockney accent is a mix of Ray Winstone and Michael Caine). Creating two disparate personalities would be a difficult undertaking for any performer, but Gibson confidently pulled it off with nuance and charm to spare. In the introductory scene, Walter is essentially talking with himself, but Gibson handled the dialogue exchanges marvelously; his face constantly switches between the despondent Walter and the vibrant Beaver to immaculate effect. Say whatever you wish about Gibson’s controversial personal life, but you cannot deny that he’s a magnificent actor. Jodie Foster is not quite as good in the role of Walter’s wife, but both Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence are spot-on as Porter and Norah (respectively). What’s most commendable about Yelchin and Lawrence is that they never seem sappy during emotional moments.
Admittedly, The Beaver is not quite as developed as it should have been, most notably in its moral lessons than could have been fleshed out more. Nevertheless, this reviewer immensely enjoyed the movie; it’s touching, it has a handful of great scenes, and boasts some wonderful acting. It packs a huge emotional punch at the end as well, and refuses to end on an entirely clichéd note (not everything is neatly resolved). This is not a perfect film, but it is challenging and original.