Opens locally Friday, May 20th, 2011 (check for showtimes)
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Jodie Foster (Home for the Holidays, Little Man Tate)
The absurdity of the premise – a man so depressed that he communicates through a hand puppet – makes you think that “The Beaver” would be remarkably difficult to take seriously. Add to it that this man is played by Mel Gibson, more famous in the past few years for his off-screen performances (accusations of homophobia, antisemitism, and racism to name a few) than his on-screen. But forget Gibson’s recent troubles. Under the tender direction of Jodie Foster, “The Beaver” is a sad and very real movie that says more about human emotion than you would first think.
The Plot. Gibson is Walter Black, a man in severe depression although we are never really told why it is as bad as it is. His marriage is falling apart, his oldest son despises him, and as an owner of a once successful toy company, his business is in ruins. These all seem to be results, not causes, of his depression. Things get so bad that he attempts to kill himself, but prior to the attempt, he discovers an old, toothy beaver hand puppet in a dumpster. His botched suicide attempt, he thinks, is due to the beaver having saved his life. He begins wearing the puppet and communicating with it, using a cockney accent as it speaks. He re-enters his life with the puppet doing all the talking for him.
Outrageous? Maybe, but put forth in a believable way. Of course those around him, namely his wife (Foster), find it ridiculous talking to a puppet. Walter lies and explains that this was a method given to him by his psychologist to deal with his depression. Gibson carries himself so dark and tortured, that whenever we see Walter forced to communicate without the beaver, the life literally drains right out of him.
Walter’s son Porter (Yelchin) hates his father and has dedicated his life to not becoming him. A parallel plot in the movie involves Porter forming a relationship with a popular cheerleader, played by the up and coming Jennifer Lawrence. She needs him to write her valedictorian speech, and he has made quite a name for himself around school writing papers and doing speeches for others. You see, everybody in this film operates through a guise of some sort, so why is it so difficult to accept a man with a puppet?
A hand puppet is a pretty extreme defense mechanism, but we all have them…shields that guard us from getting hurt or revealing our inner-truths…and the metaphors brought forth in “The Beaver” will either connect fully with you, or will leave you uncomfortable. Or perhaps, you may be disappointed if you were expecting any hints of comedy in a movie starring a man with a beaver puppet on his hand. But the truth is that despite your thoughts on Mel Gibson, this is one of his finest performances. He somehow channels a performance into a beaver, and portrays a comfort when the puppet is on-screen. When he is just Walter, his sadness is so real that you actually start to believe that the beaver and Walter may be two distinct people. The movie spends too much time away from Walter though, which pulls us from the thematic center of the film.
It may not be the most conventional portrayal of depression, but “The Beaver” delivers as one of this year’s saddest, understated, and yet emotionally powerful films.