A version of this review originally appeared as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.
If you can disassociate yourself from your personal feelings about actor Mel Gibson — a fitting gesture for a film about a man who invents an alternate personality — it’s not hard to admire his performance in Jodie Foster’s new film “The Beaver.” But that’s a pretty big if, since so much of film plays like a meta commentary on Gibson’s personal problems and on Foster’s attempts to support her troubled friend and star. “People seem to love a train wreck when it’s not happening to them,” someone says in “The Beaver,” and it’s a line that applies equally well to Gibson and his role as suicidally depressed family man and toy company CEO Walter Black. “The Beaver” isn’t a train wreck, but it’s not exactly high-speed rail, either.
For reasons “The Beaver” never explains, Walter begins the film lost inside a crippling bout of depression. He’s disconnected from his wife Meredith (Foster) and his two kids, teenaged Porter (Anton Yelchin) and sevenish Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). After Meredith kicks him out of the house, Walter’s throwing some of his crap into a dumpster, where he spots, and then rescues, a ratty beaver puppet. That night, Walter gets drunk and tries to commit suicide. Waking up the next morning a failure, he’s greeted by the puppet, who calls himself The Beaver and speaks to him in a gruff English accent. “I’m sick,” Walter croaks. “On that we agree,” The Beaver replies. “The question is: do you want to get better?”
The Beaver’s solution? Let him do the talking (and the thinking) for both of them. Soon The Beaver’s running Walter’s life: playing with his kids, romancing Meredith, even revitalizing his company JerryCo. (whose aural similarity to Jericho, “the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth,” has to be intentional). These scenes play as heartwarming, goofy comedy of the sort you’d expect in any Hollywood movie about a dysfunctional family. It’s only during the third act that The Beaver’s role in Walter’s life begins to change and that “The Beaver” finally begins to take us down some interesting and unexpectedly dark paths. These scenes are the best in the film, the most sharply written by first-time screenwriter Kyle Killen and the most fascinatingly acted by Gibson giving two simultaneous performances as both the Beaver and the real Walter, who is increasingly imprisoned inside his own mind by his wooly life coach.
With focus and framing, Foster visualizes the constant fluctuations in Walter and The Beaver’s relationship. As they set off on their journey together, the two appear mostly side-by-side. As the Beaver asserts more and more control, he appears more and more in focus, until he’s dominating the frame and even blocking Gibson’s face completely at times. It’s a simple technique, but an effective one.
“The Beaver,” like its protagonist, has a lot of admirable qualities and a lot of problems. It deals seriously with the dangers of depression but it also trivializes the recovery process. It gives “Winter’s Bone” star Jennifer Lawrence a juicy supporting role as Yelchin’s valedictorian-with-attitude love interest, but it totally wastes Foster as Meredith, who does nothing but stare at Gibson worriedly the whole time (on a side note, isn’t it odd that the least developed character is the director’s?). It builds up Yelchin as a counterpoint to and commentary on Gibson’s, then uses him to repeatedly enunciate the themes of the movie, namely the shiftiness of identity and the healing power of love. Its climax is bold and risky in a way that few Hollywood movies are, but its denouement feels rushed in a way that suggests reshoots or rewrites.
When I saw “The Beaver,” for the first time at South by Southwest, I said that I thought the film “could have benefitted from a more subversive director, someone willing to find a more even balance between the story’s dark mind and warm heart.” Now I’m not so sure. After watching it without that raucous SXSW audience, “The Beaver” feels less like an unfunny comedy than a serious and sad movie that’s been marketed and interpreted as a comedy.
Still, the lame joke fits: I’m of two minds about “The Beaver.” It’s flawed, but full of ambition, and despite its problems, I admire the hell out of its chutzpah (I’d gladly watch the film a third time, which is always a good sign too). There’s a lot of things I would change: Foster’s character; the film’s heavy-handed score; its overly articulate teenagers and their way of explaining exactly how they’re feeling at any given moment. But I wouldn’t touch anything about Gibson’s performance. It is something to behold. Because Walter is quickly overwhelmed and basically replaced by The Beaver, Gibson has to play him without ever getting to speak as him, communicating his fragile perspective with gestures, facial expressions, and haunted, soul-bearing glances of the sort that cut right through all the crap about the actor’s private life and show you just how much he understands this character’s pain. If the real life Gibson would take a page from Walter and maybe let someone else do the talking for him once in a while, it might not be so hard to appreciate his work, or to separate him from it.