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The Beaver

May 22, 2011
The Beaver

There is a view some people hold that says one should avoid The Beaver because of your feelings about Mel Gibson’s person or politics. And as much as I understand and respect that viewpoint, I have to beg you to set it aside because otherwise you will miss out on a truly excellent film. Rest assured that while Gibson is the star of the film, he is not a writer, director, or producer; and for all his personal failings he actually is a very good actor.

Walter Black (Gibson) is a “hopelessly depressed” man, whose life has gotten completely beyond his control. He withdraws to sleep all day, no matter what else he’s doing. The toy company he heads up is hemorrhaging money and sales, and his family life is even worse. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, doing double-duty as director) grows distant, his younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) feels invisible, and his older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) compiles lists of similarities to Walter for later excision.

Eventually, Meredith asks Walter to leave. He checks into a hotel room and buys a case of liquor, which he can’t fit into his trunk before throwing out the accumulated detritus of his life. And while tossing his life into the dumpster he finds and randomly saves a bedraggled beaver hand-puppet. Back at the hotel, Walter drinks himself into a stupor, watches an entirely-too-appropriate episode of Kung Fu, and attempts to kill himself.

Of course he’s not quite successful; he comes to, pinned under a television set, and alternating between his own defeated voice and an Cockney one associated with the puppet. Walter, he explains to himself, is a dead-end, and The Beaver is here to save his life. This, he promises, is no mere interior decorator’s touch-up, nor even a remodeling job; the only way out is to tear everything down and start over.

There are so many different directions that I could go in talking about the film, which speaks to the deftness and sensitivity of its handling of depression. It’s clearly understood that this is not simply a matter of feeling sad a lot; Walter’s problems are far more systemic than that, and the particular expression rings true, down to the desperation to have any place that feels safe for honesty, even if that place is ultimately destructive. The familial connections and Walter’s own history are suggested without overmuch emphasis. There are many details I was left curious about, but I also understand that to delve into them would have bloated the screenplay and sapped its impact.

Then there’s the parallel storyline between Porter and the high school valedictorian, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), which examines a different impact depression can have on a family. And also Porter’s fraught relationship with his father, which elicits a spark of recognition even as it reminds us just how disturbingly common the rough outlines of this dynamic are.

Both Gibson and Yelchin clearly worked closely on their mannerisms. Even when the similarities aren’t being highlighted the two characters feel so much more closely related than most on-screen fathers and sons. And of course Gibson is effectively playing two separate roles here, and does a great job at each of them, often both at the same time. Confronted with his former life, Walter clearly shows the hatred and terror he holds for himself as The Beaver continues to reassert itself over him, literally replacing his mouth as the shot is framed. Some of the most touching scenes are those where we catch Walter and The Beaver thinking different things, distinguished only by a slight difference in their gaze.

But one angle in particular I feel I have to bring up: the premise is obviously rather silly, but just as The Beaver allows Walter a distance from and a perspective on himself it also allows us some critical perspective on the interplay between psychoactive medication, depression, and addiction. If the story were written simply in terms of Prozac or Xanax or some other pill their sheer familiarity would prevent us from really listening to the story and not applying our own biases. And so we get a beaver-shaped hand puppet instead; a puppet on whom Walter increasingly depends, and under whose influence Walter is a demonstrably different person. Walter needs The Beaver not only because The Beaver says so (addiction) but also because without The Beaver Walter will end up back on a balcony ready to end it all again (therapy). But if killing the old Walter and replacing him with The Beaver is the only thing keeping him going, then maybe that’s just the price that has to be paid. Yes, the premise is hard to swallow on its face, but if you’re taking a serious movie merely at face value you’re missing the point.

The Beaver gives us much to chew on and to ponder. Or at least it does so for me. My own reaction is decidedly personal, as I’m sure most will be. But even to those with whom it doesn’t resonate so personally it offers a compelling story, performed by an excellent cast, and crafted by an excellent director. Those who have the capacity and willingness to take it seriously will not be disappointed.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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