Mel Gibson gives a performance for the ages in a forgettable film
Much like everything in life, actors are often remembered for what they did last as opposed to the sum of their career. “What have you done lately?” seems to follow actors around until their death. Orson Welles is known to an entire generation as the ultimate actor for hire, willing to do nearly any role for a paycheck, and yet a large chunk of his career is absolutely brilliant.
We only acknowledged that after his death, to push aside voice work for an animated Transformers film, in the same way Gene Hackman is almost forgotten after a forgettable turn in Welcome to Mooseport marked his retirement from acting. Hackman has two Oscars and major roles in some of the best work of cinema from the 1970s on and yet his last memory for many fans was as a comedic foil to the guy from Everyone Loves Raymond. Upon his death we’ll probably forget that film, preferring to remember him as the two-time Oscar Winner who was iconic as Popeye Doyle from The French Connection and Little Bill in Unforgiven, as well as a memorable turn in Hoosiers amongst others.
Mel Gibson will probably follow this same path; we’ll forget about his domestic violence accusations and his anti-Semitic comments, amongst others, and remember the brilliance of films like Lethal Weapon and Braveheart. We’ll remember him as one of the last great film stars, despite the controversy, and look at a film like The Beaver in its proper context: as a brilliant performance in a mediocre film most likely to be forgotten because of the controversy of the time.
Walter (Gibson) is the CEO of a toy company his father founded with a severe case of depression. Nothing has worked for him and his family begins to feel the effects. His wife (Jodie Foster) has withdrawn into her work as an engineer. His eldest son (Anton Yelchin) writes papers for other students and counts the ways he shares similarities with his father. His youngest (Riley Thomas Stewart) has retreated, becoming a bit of a loner. They’ve reached a boiling point and this is a family at the verge of splintering, their problems becoming too much together for it to continue on. And there’s only one choice: Walter has to go.
Kicked out of the house, Walter views only choice left in his life: end it. He’s failed at his marriage, the one thing that was stable as the business his father started and left to him is failing. Trying to kill himself with alcohol, he finds a beaver hand puppet in a trash bin that he takes as he’s making room in his car for a plethora of alcohol. Soon thereafter the Beaver takes charge of his life, as Walter uses the Beaver to deal with the world around him, and it goes for the better. But can he live his life without the puppet doing his talking? And can his family handle their father being disconnected with them?
That’s the arc of the story, and it’s not a particularly engaging one, but the film lives and breathes because Gibson commands the screen. He’s always been a great dramatic actor, if underrated because he’s been more of an action star and comedic presence than a dramatic actor, and if this had been released six months earlier Colin Firth wouldn’t have his first Oscar.
Gibson takes what could be a silly character, a man who has to disconnect himself from the world and speak through a puppet with a combination British/Australian accent, and gives it a dramatic heft that makes us forget the inherent silliness. Gibson commands the screen with his puppet and the film’s eventual, darker story arc gets us engaged because of him. Walter isn’t a particularly deep character but his shallowness falls to the wayside because of the depth of Gibson inhabiting him.
It’s a shame the film doesn’t follow suit. This is a middling family melodrama that is prone to overstatement and Foster is a bit showy as a director. This is competently made and engaging enough, mainly because Foster gets such an amazing performance from Gibson, but there’s nothing engaging about it outside of the surface level. The Beaver has had many problems, mainly because of Gibson’s personal life overshadowing the production, but on the screen the man has given performance his finest performance.
Director: Jodie Foster Notable Cast: Jodie Foster, Mel Gibson, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence Writer(s): Kyle Killen