Full disclosure: given the comments I have made about Mel Gibson over the last ten months (see here and here), I ventured into “The Beaver” — made in 2009 before Mr. Gibson’s personal affairs exploded publicly — with extreme prejudice against him both as a film critic and as a member of John Q. Public. My prejudices were no greater than some critics’ prejudices presumably would be against, say, O.J. Simpson, had he starred in a film before 1994 that was released after 1995.
Of course, each critic or audience member goes into any film carrying a measure of some taint of life’s experiences, bias or prejudice, which makes the reviewer and the art project things onto each other that reveal more about the reviewer than the subject itself. To say one doesn’t bring this taint, even with an open mind, is probably close to heresy.
That said, it took me more than an hour to separate my admittedly strong personal reservations (to say the least) about Mr. Gibson the man from Mr. Gibson the actor while watching Jodie Foster’s latest film “The Beaver”. The film opened over the weekend in San Francisco at the Kabuki. Ms. Foster’s drama however, is much better than many will give it credit for. At once an odd, surreal and occasionally marvelous film, “The Beaver” takes on new meaning in light of Mr. Gibson’s publicly-aired private troubles. The actor pulls off a tricky and palpable performance as Walter Black, a New York CEO who suffers from depression following the death of his youngest son.
Walter’s release valve is the presence of a hand puppet he adopts and names The Beaver, who shields Walter from himself and the pain of loss. The Beaver dons an English cockney accent in the vein of Ray Winstone (with whom Mr. Gibson appeared in last year’s “Edge Of Darkness”) and has a ballpark similarity to a 1980s British television puppet, one Roland Rat. Walter functions exclusively through the Beaver, day and night, including on the job and with Meredith (Ms. Foster), his wife of 20 years, and their children, including teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) with whom he has a rocky relationship.
“The Beaver” accomplishes a feat in sensitively treating the delicate subject of depression and making it both thought-provoking and entertaining on the big screen. Ms. Foster’s film plays like satire, especially with a Matt Lauer episode that reeks of Tom Cruise’s infamous “you’re so glib” moment — minus the comment. Mr. Cruise spoke several years ago with Mr. Lauer on television about depression and of the illness not needing treatment, and his pointed remarks about Brooke Shields echo in the episode in “The Beaver” by their absence, though Ms. Foster’s film seems to offer the Lauer moment as a corrective answer to Mr. Cruise’s insensitive remarks. (In a Premiere magazine interview years ago Ms. Foster referenced Mr. Cruise in a way that could not be perceived as positive, even though she didn’t say anything negative about him.)
In “The Beaver” the media response to Walter’s plight is satirized. There’s the insanity of the intense coverage of such a personal, isolating problem. There’s the convenient labeling of someone that the world fails to understand as “insane” — in order to avoid exploring, laboring and addressing the issues that exist behind the condition of depression.
It’s impossible not to think about the travails of Mr. Gibson during the film, which ironically magnifies how earnest and sincere “The Beaver” is. Mr. Gibson is afforded the space to resonate in a role that may be closer to who he really is than any other he has played before. In “The Beaver” Ms. Foster allows her close friend what has been the obligatory self-sacrifice that has been a staple of numerous Gibson films (“Lethal Weapon 2”, “Braveheart”, “The Passion Of The Christ”, “Apocalypto” and “Edge Of Darkness”.)
Mr. Gibson wrestles himself vigorously and puts his demons squarely on the line in “The Beaver”, which is comic but never funny. Walter is doomed and tortured, and therefore must face a reckoning — and has to atone. This strain of self-punishment fits the theologies and positions that the public Mr. Gibson has taken. Still, it takes a measure of guts to do what Mr. Gibson does here. What looks foolish on the surface is more human in light of the real-life implications, and in what the disease of depression — which millions of Americans suffer from in some form or another — really does.
(I think of Colin Firth in “A Single Man” during that film’s attempted suicide scene, one not played for laughs but nonetheless funny. Had Mr. Firth behaved in the manner Mr. Gibson does during a scene in Ms. Foster’s drama, the Oscar-winning Brit may have been laughed out of the theater. By contrast, when the New York-born Mr. Gibson erupts it is unnerving and not funny at all.)
Ms. Foster, who last teamed onscreen with Mr. Gibson in “Maverick” in 1994, brings a tenderness to the film not only with her discreet direction of it but her performance as Meredith, Walter’s biggest advocate on screen and the director’s strongest off. Ms. Foster has for years consistently defended her star performer in the same vein the late Elizabeth Taylor did the late Michael Jackson, when most of the world scorned him and believed he molested children.
The weakest part of “The Beaver” is its parallel story about fathers and sons, which grows a little saccharine despite a good performance by Anton Yelchin (“Alpha Dog”, “Charlie Bartlett”, “Star Trek”.) Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) also does good work here as Norah, Porter’s girlfriend, who has suffered a loss of her own. There are aspects of this part of the film that rings false, including the idea that Mr. Yelchin’s character would be able to maintain such poise and equilibrium during some of the most trying moments we see. Some of the episodes involving the actors towards the film’s end feel truncated, as if to expediently close the film.
“The Beaver” tries hard to work, and most of it does. We struggle to understand Walter and the film takes sometime to bring us into the fold. “The Beaver” is not an outstanding film by any stretch, but it is a good one, worth watching and contemplating. For many reasons, it will, if nothing else, inspire plenty of discussion.
–At the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, additional area theaters.
With: Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Michael Rivera, Cherry Jones, Kelly Coffield Park.
“The Beaver” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference. The film’s duration is one hour and 36 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s icedjamb.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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