The Beaver – 2011
Directed by Jodie Foster
Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Written by Kyle Killen
I have never pretended to understand depression. Not many people lately have tried to understand Mel Gibson. I have been quite interested in understanding him since his groundbreaking directorial début so many years ago in Braveheart. The Passion of the Christ followed, and began an unjust assault on his character. Many mocked him when he took the spike for his only scene in The Passion… and drove in the first spike. In the years that followed, he proved his critics right. Well, not exactly. Really he just got old, desperate and succumbed to the demons of alcoholism. He understood all to well why his hands were the ones that crucified The Lord. What most of us get to do in private, became a spectacle of epic proportions. The phone calls to the mother of his youngest child were astoundingly horrific and worthy of the shame brought upon himself, even if they were revealed in suspicious circumstances. Still, a lot of us have not bothered to follow Christ’s wisdom and threw the first of a many stones from the safety of their own shadows.
Jodie Foster was not one of them. In the midst of making this movie, with Mel, may have had limited opportunity to distance himself from her troubled employee/co-worker, but she did not even flinch. She knew that he was her mess, and her friend. This movie is a fine testament to this chaos, and the perfect demonstration of the mess we make of our lives, for whatever reason.
The irony of The Beaver is that it was actually made before Mel’s most famous blowout. One would have a hard time believing this as you watch Mel literally fall apart on the screen. Starting out with Mel performing a decent Cockney accent, we find that the state of the family is one of disrepair. Walter Black (Gibson) after years of battling depression, leaves the home of his wife (Foster) and children, Porter (Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). His first night away, he buys a large amount of booze, finds a Beaver hand puppet in a garbage and, at his hotel, he attempts to commit suicide. Failing that, he wakes up from his blackout and finds the puppet already in conversation with him. From here, he makes a deal with the puppet, as an extension of himself and with The Beaver in the lead, heads back to the world.
His wife, Meredith, is happy to see that he and The Beaver had made a connection with Henry, reluctantly allows him back. Porter, who is experiencing an identity crisis himself, is battling with the list of similarities he shares with his father. He does not want him back. Porter’s performance at school as one who writes papers for and in the voice of others leads him to the attention of Norah, who hires him to write her valedictorian speech. We can see where this leads a thousand miles away.
Harder to figure is the direction that Walter is heading. In one of the best performances of his career, Gibson portrays Black as someone who is at a loss to describe what he is experiencing to anyone else, including a kind and understanding wife who would do just about anything to better understand him. Preceding Walter into the abyss was his father, who died in an accident a few years earlier. It is implied that he, too, may have committed suicide. The cycle of his father, to Walter, to Porter is almost too much to overcome. The Beaver brings some success to Walter in his professional life, with his wife and with his youngest son, whom he had ignored before. Soon enough, the act wears thin for his wife and for Walter himself. What happens next must be experienced, as one would be shorted by any written description.
The thing about The Beaver, is that it does not profess to give any answers. Nothing is neat and clean. Loss must be experienced, before anything can be gained. Towards the last quarter of the film, I recall thinking that the movie reminded me of the Saul Bellow short play, The Wrecker. In it, a husband and wife find the life in their marriage by destroying the house it grew stale in. It was a pat answer for a complex issue. If this movie had gone that route, I would have been disappointed. Foster the director follows the instincts of her writer and allows no quarter to Walter Black. His issue is one of an intractable malaise and something shocking is needed to shake him from it. The performances all around in this film are exceptional. Great performances that deserve special mention are. once more, Gibson’s subtle, exaggerated and overly nuanced performance and the wonderful Foster, who exudes motherly concern and the desires of a wife seeking a real and elusive love. Yelchin and Lawrence are good, despite being caught in the most predictable plot in the script.
We are allowed some time to see things work themselves out. Do they really? All I can say is that there are smiles in the end. Smiles, like happiness, can be fleeting. Even fleeting moments can help break the unrelentingly morose nature of depression.
(**** out *****)