Directed by: Jodie Foster
Written by: Kyle Killen
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, & Anton Yelchin
A TCC RATING OF:
When I heard the premise for The Beaver a couple years ago, back when the script was at the top of The Black List (a list of the hottest un-produced screenplays floating around Hollywood) I thought “this sounds hilarious!” Fast forward to a few months ago when the trailer drops, and I thought “this looks awful!” When you hear that the movie is about a depressed guy who finds a beaver puppet and starts to talk through it, you think it’s going to have some kind of quirky indie sensibility in the vein of films like Little Miss Sunshine. Actually, The Beaver is a drama first, and a comedy second, and it handles the “gimmick” seriously, with surprisingly good results.
The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as Walter, the head of an international toy company, who has a wife (Jodie Foster) and two kids (Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart). Walter is battling serious depression, has tried every kind of therapy known to mankind, and gets kicked out of his home. After buying a bunch of booze and picking up a beaver puppet from a garbage can, he tries to kill himself but the beaver puppet talks him out of it and takes control of his life. The rest of the movie deals with Walter managing his new life through The Beaver.
The first thing to address is Mel Gibson. Say what you will about his off-screen activity, but personally I am still a huge fan of his as an actor, and some of his past films are among my favorites (Lethal Weapon, Mad Max, Galipoli). His role in this film is an excellent role to take in trying to rehab his image, as there are obvious and likely intentional parallels between Walter and Gibson. Both are going through hard times and are ostracized from the people they used to interact with. Through the film, Walter starts to rehabilitate his relationships with his family and brings success back to his company. Throughout the Mel Gibson saga, Jodie Foster was a vocal supporter of Gibson’s, so it is not a leap to assume she picked this project and cast Mel at least in part to help him get back into the public consciousness in a positive light.
That said, the film still works really well without thinking about it in terms of the Mel Gibson angle. Unlike most of the other movies coming out this time of year, The Beaver is dramatic, emotional, and thought-provoking. The script does a very good job of forming interesting relationships, demonstrating character development, and exploring various themes.
The four key relationships in the film which form the emotional throughlines of the film are between Walter and his wife (Meredith), Walter and his son (Porter), Porter and a girl from his school (Norah, played by Jennifer Lawrence), and Walter and The Beaver. The relationship between Walter and Meredith is interesting because she clearly loves him, and wants him to get out of his depression, but she has to reconcile that with her own interests and those of her children. How much should someone sacrifice to help someone else? At what point do you just say enough is enough and look to take care of yourself? Can you blame yourself for what is going on with your partner? These are some of the questions the film contemplates and the viewer contemplates. There is no right or wrong presented in the film, it is just shown and left for us to interpret.
The relationship between Walter and Porter is different because of their ages. Walter was emotionally missing for some of Porter’s formative years as a teenager, which had a serious influence on how he grew up. Porter keeps post-it notes on his wall chronicling all the similarities he shares with Walter, so that he can eliminate them all one-by-one so he never follows his father’s footsteps. Unlike the film presenting the relationship between Walter and Meredith in a relatively unbiased light, Porter takes a definite stance on it. He is upset with Walter for dragging the family down with him and hurting Meredith emotionally. When Walter shows up with The Beaver, Porter gets furious that Meredith just lets him back into her life, and he never accepts Walter’s apparent change as a result of the puppet.
The major subplot of the movie is between Porter and Norah. Norah finds out Porter writes assignments for people at school for money, and pays him to write her Valedictorian speech. Through the film, Porter tries to dig down to get to Norah’s hidden inner feelings about the death of her brother, which she resists. Although it felt a little tacked on, considering it was clearly a movie about Walter, this subplot was helpful in breaking up the subject matter of the film, injecting some different sets and characters into the film.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the relationship between Walter and The Beaver. At the start of the film, the puppet just acts as an emotional barrier between Walter and other people, allowing him to interact with people without seeming depressed. As the movie progresses however, The Beaver begins to take more and more control over Walter, until it is clear he has a mind of his own (to be clear, The Beaver is purely a manifestation of Walter’s mind, nothing supernatural) and takes over his life. Themes of identity are heavily explored in this relationship. Is Walter’s behaviour through The Beaver really hidden underneath his depression or is it purely acting? The progression toward The Beaver having control is simultaneously a descent into madness for Walter. At its core, the film is a story about Walter’s depression spiralling into full blown insanity, which culminates in a thrilling and heart-breaking showdown.
The Beaver could easily have been a tonal mess, considering how much potential for humor the script has, but Jodie Foster really handles it in a serious manner, which makes the film extremely emotionally resonant. It is a very thought-provoking film, without ever being tedious, boring, or feel like it’s trying to teach you lessons. It is a stark and honest portrayal of an extremely troubled man trying to deal with his family and his job while battling for control of his own mind, and it should stay in your mind for a while as you ruminate over the nature of relationships and the meaning of identity.