SXSW ’11: The Beaver – Review


Mel Gibson Going Through Dam Depression

In no uncertain terms people should not view The Beaver as Mel Gibson’s catharsis from his emotional outbursts and racial slurs. But that’s probably how it will appear. While that is one way to view Jodie Foster’s third directorial feature, it is still a misconception. The Mel Gibson in The Beaver is not the Mel Gibson; it’s only a character.

The fact that his character, Walter Black, is in a downward spiral of depression, subjecting himself to isolation in a hotel room with a box of booze and Kung Fu reruns, is purely coincidental to Gibson’s own emotional breakdowns. Still, it is hard to discuss the film and not think of the coverage he’s received from TMZ and Entertainment Tonight in recent months.

Walter Black is a messed-up individual. Married with children, and the CEO of a fledgling toy empire, you would think his life would be complete. But Walter has regressed as a person. Depression has consumed him. Inclined to sleep most hours of the day and drink during the periods of wakefulness has led to Walter’s alienation from his family. He’s gone to doctors, taken the medication prescribed but his condition never got better. He’s even gone as far as self-flagellating as if he were repenting his sins.

That one sequence may have been written in Kyle Killen’s original script, but it again serves as a reminder of Gibson’s nefarious episodes. To see a depressed character played by a troubled actor never leaves our thought process, but it serves to inform the story at hand.

As much as the early advertisements would lead you to believe, The Beaver is not a comedy. Jodie Foster warned the audience of this fact as she introduced the film at SXSW. Yet it sure starts out that way with Walter’s botched suicide attempt, first in a shower and then outside on the hotel balcony. Seeing this, visions of Crazy Mel in Lethal Weapon handcuffing himself to a jumper on a building popped into my head.

The failed suicide results in a breakthrough for Walter: He begins dealing with his problems through a beaver puppet he rescued from the garbage. The conclusion is that Walter’s psyche was so irreparable that was better to “blow it up” and start over.

So he begins dealing with his family and co-workers not directly but with the assistance of the Beaver, who speaks with a Cockney accent, frequently calling friends “mates” and his wife “love.” Such psychological therapy seems legit – Walter even admits that it was his doctor’s idea. And in the beginning it appears believable. The first person to accept the Beaver is his youngest son; because he’s still at that age where a person communicating with a talking-hand puppet doesn’t seem at all strange. His wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), is hesitant to buy into Walter’s new lease on life. When she finally becomes accepting of her husband it leads to a funny, if troubling, threesome with Walter, Meredith and the Beaver.

The Beaver is relatively light in its tone of depression, not in a mocking way, but not in a superficial family drama way either. It takes a dark turn on the night of their anniversary dinner, where Meredith insists on eating with Walter (and Walter only) at a restaurant. Walter is exposed and breaks down as a result. Gibson doesn’t overplay his emotional state; he underplays it, allowing it to fester to a point where the conclusion is justified, if a bit unconventional.

Walter’s suffering is reflected in his eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin). He is ashamed of his father and can’t understand why his mom would take him back after all the pain he’s caused. Porter is pained. Pained by the number of similarities he has in common with his father. Pained by his own life. Porter’s subplot involving him writing the graduation speech for the class valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence ditching her homely Winter’s Bone look for that of a prom queen/head cheerleader type) could have been a conventional romantic subplot, but it evolves into something more poignant, sharing the movie’s themes and providing the emotional catharsis to the film.

The emotional pain in The Beaver as explored by Walter and his eldest son could have been overplayed and executed poorly in the wrong director’s hands. Jodie Foster somehow manages to take a crazy-sounding premise about emotional illness and a talking beaver and delivers a film that is serious and humorous. And she humanizes Mel Gibson just enough to make us want to empathize with him – the person. Strong acting by Gibson and Yelchin elevate the crazy premise and ground a film that wouldn’t have worked otherwise. The Beaver will be a challenge to market, no question, but while Gibson’s performance may be voyeuristic to some it may be his best work as an actor in more than a decade.

Director: Jodie Foster
Notable Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart
Writer(s): Kyle Killen

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