Film Review – The Beaver
It’s hard to separate Mel Gibson from the man he plays in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver (2011). Here is an actor who was once on top of the world, a strong leading man with infinite charisma, charm, and likeability. An award-winning filmmaker, there was a point in time when Gibson could do no wrong. Boy, have things changed quickly since. Bouts with alcoholism, arrests, and outlandish remarks have sent his career on a downward spiral that would be near impossible for anyone else to crawl out from. When I heard about the premise of the film—involving a man fighting his way out of depression through the use of a stuffed beaver puppet—I almost groaned at its absurdity. After seeing the film, though, I was almost shocked by how effective it actually was. And it’s because of Gibson; perhaps no one else in the world could have played this role.
What a strong performance Gibson gives. Despite everything we’ve read or heard from him in the last couple of years, in this film he reminds us of all the talent and appeal that once made him such a big star. If any other actor were to play this role, it would certainly not have been as convincing. The best performances are those that come from a place of truth, and for Mel Gibson this could not have been any more applied. It borders on a kind of brilliance in the way he makes us believe his character could spend the entire length of the film talking through The Beaver with a Cockney Accent. We can sense that although he may not say it, there’s a little bit of him in this role. Gibson plays Walter Black, a clinically depressed businessman and father. Walter has fallen in to a kind of malaise; he feels unqualified for his job, sleeps all day, does nothing. His wife Meredith (Foster) loves him but can’t stand the way he is, and his son Porter (Anton Yelchin) resents everything about him. In fact, Porter hates his father so much that he lists the traits that they share so that he can work on changing them.
Things get so bad for Walter that he can’t bear the thought of going another day. He has been thrown out of his home, and the only solace he can find is at the bottom of a bottle. However, just as he is about convinced to end it all, he gets interrupted by The Beaver, whom he finds thrown away in the trash. The Beaver has come to help Walter out of his rut, get his life on the right track, and bring his family back together. I like the way that Gibson, along with Foster’s direction and Kyle Killen’s screenplay, completely removes the idea of this being a ventriloquist act: we can clearly see Walter’s mouth speaking the words that The Beaver is saying. Walter has created The Beaver (or, has The Beaver separated himself from Walter?) in an attempt to distance himself from the depressed person he once was. Obviously, this is first seen as a ludicrous joke by other people, especially by Porter. But, as things seem to turn for the better, with Walter’s company gaining a profit from his newly found enthusiasm, and his family growing closer because of his genuine interaction, it would appear that the coping mechanism is working. Things don’t last forever, though, as the second half of the film deals with exactly how long Walter will need to use The Beaver as a crutch, and how much patience his family will have talking to the puppet instead of the man.
Foster does a good job directing the material here. The tone of the film is never condescending toward Walter and his situation, but takes it seriously despite its ridiculousness. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of humor here, because there are, which adds levity to a story that could have been overbearing with heaviness. The camera is never flashy and never calls for attention; it sits back and lets the scenes unfold themselves. The editing is well done, allowing us to understand whether Walter is talking or The Beaver is, even while they are both seen on screen at the same time. Foster does a good job with the double duty of directing and acting. Her character of Meredith is a woman who tries to deal with the way things are. she tries to work with Walter, but resists if things go too far. Gibson and Foster have a mutual chemistry that has been seen in previous work together, and they bring it here to two people who are on the edge of separating. What makes the material work is the level of emotion that Foster allows the film to have. We get a sense that these are real people, with real issues, who are trying to deal with everything as best as they can.
There are notable problems with the movie. The main issue that I had was with the second story thread, dealing with Porter’s blossoming relationship with fellow schoolmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). I see what they were going for here, trying to compare and contrast the father/son dynamic and how Walter’s predicament affects Porter’s romance with Norah. The problem is that I didn’t find their romance to be believable. Norah is the school valedictorian, a smart young woman with a good future ahead of her, which makes me wonder exactly why she would need to hire Porter to ghostwrite her graduation speech, when she can most likely do it herself. When she does give her speech near the end of the film (which really doesn’t belong anyway), it feels too heavy-handed and literal, which is not what this movie needed. Yelchin and Lawrence do look good on screen together, and perhaps their story should have been expanded into its own film, but here their dynamic does not add much to the film’s effectiveness.
The Beaver’s success lives or dies on Mel Gibson’s performance, which I feel he accomplishes on a surprising level. He brings sincerity to his role as Walter; he goes 100% percent into character and asks us to look beyond his silly outward appearance. In no way did I think that this movie was going to be as good as it was, and I’m glad that my expectations were proven wrong. This may be hard to believe, but I do find myself rooting for Mel Gibson. Despite the crazy antics and derogatory remarks, I do hope he can eventually see the error of his ways and find peace within himself. He may never reach the level of stardom he once had, and maybe that’s not exactly what he needs right now. What I do know is that with this film, and with this character, he took one step in the right direction.
Final Grade: B+