A man tries to crazy his way out of depression by interacting with the world via a puppet in The Beaver, which, yes, is the movie that may or may not be Mel Gibson’s comeback.
I’m going to guess “not,” in that I don’t see hordes of moviegoers turning out for a movie about mental illness and an Australian-accented beaver puppet. Which is too bad, because as beaver-puppet-mental-illness movies go, this one’s pretty good.
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) has a good job as the executive at a toy company, a nice house and a good, typically dysfunctional family — successful roller coaster engineer Meredith (Jodie Foster), sweet if quiet younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and sullen teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin). But Walter is depressed. So depressed that despite therapy and medication and drum circles, Walter can barely bring himself to get out of bed and frequently can’t. Meredith eventually can’t deal with it and tells him to leave the house. Walter heads to a hotel by way of the liquor store, where he finds a beaver puppet in a dumpster, which for no particular reason he takes with him. Now further depressed and drinking himself past a stupor and toward a coma, Walter first tries to hang himself and then to jump off his balcony. His own drunkenness saves him and instead of jumping he winds up knocked unconscious by the TV. When he wakes up, he finds himself being urged to get up and get on with his day by the Beaver, the puppet now on his own arm and speaking to him with an Australian accent.
Side note from plot discussion: What’s actually kind of impressive about how the movie does this is that it doesn’t involve some kind of “magic” — something that would force us to see a world in which the Beaver was “real.” The Beaver is clearly Walter, or some part of Walter’s personality, speaking through the puppet. Walter’s lips move, the sound is coming from Walter’s mouth and at times even the “real Walter” breaks through to say something. But at the same time, the movie also makes the Beaver a kind of character. He is separate from Walter, even though he is Walter. As the movie goes on, this helps to highlight how dark the place is that Walter is in.
With the help of the Beaver, Walter, who has more or less removed himself from both his family’s life and his business, is able to reengage. Speaking only as Beaver, Walter starts hanging out with Henry, building things together in the family garage. At work, he energizes the staff into preparing new toys for an upcoming conference, including a beaver-face-adorned woodworking kit. Even Meredith is excited by this new, lively Walter. Only Porter hasn’t taken to the Beaver-assisted Walter — perhaps because his crazy father with a crazy new coping mechanism scares him on an existential level. Porter has started filling his wall with Post-It notes, each one featuring a similarity between him and Walter. One of them is “hates his father who hates his father who hates his father” — it seems Walter’s dad also struggled with something and wound up, the insinuation is, committing suicide. Porter is scared that his future could be the same as Walter’s. He’s planning a kind of soul-searching trip as soon as he leaves high school and is going to fund it with the money he’s earned selling papers to fellow students. While used to writing papers for meatheads, he’s surprised when school valedictorian (and cheerleader and girl he’s smitten with) Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) asks him to write her graduation speech for him.
So I’m sure you’re thinking “crippling depression, father-son difficulties, marital discord and suicide? Sign me up!” And — I say this as someone who liked the movie — I honestly don’t know how this movie could possibly sell itself in a way that would get most people into theaters without blatantly lying by stitching together the funniest bits and selling it as a comedy. Sure, The Beaver has its moments of levity, but it is dark — so much darker if you really think about it. If this is a place you’re willing to go, the movie really pays off.
The performances — yes, including Gibson’s — are pretty great across the board. Whatever is wrong in the head of Gibson in real life, he here presents a broken and world-weary man with complexity and nuance. I think the directing (by Jodie Foster) helped a fair amount in this — she seems to have kept him from going big or goofy, even when his character is behaving manically.
Onscreen, Foster does a good job of being a bystander to a loved one’s illness — Meredith loves Walter fiercely but doesn’t know what to do for him.
Yelchin and Lawrence, whose story makes a kind of side plot to Walter’s, are equally compelling. They are both, mostly, “healthy” but have problems that they can’t quite figure out how to deal with. For anyone who thought Lawrence might have just lucked into a good performance in Winter’s Bone, even this relatively small role shows how mature her acting talents are. B
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference. Directed by Jodie Foster and written by Kyle Killen, The Beaver is an hour and 31 minutes long and distributed by Summit Entertainment.