Might as well start with the elephant in the room – this is Mel Gibson’s first acting role since the infamous raging against his girlfriend tapes were unleashed on the public, further tainting the movie star aura Gibson once enjoyed, and it’s hard to not think about all of that stuff when Mad Max plays a character that is desperately seeking redemption. So a lot depends on what the viewer brings to this movie, and their preconceived notions of who Gibson is and what he represents, because that can be easily transferred on to the lead character he plays. Then again, maybe you’re the kind of person who can separate that stuff, and you can see the performance for what it is, without all that extra baggage. In either case, you’ll likely be surprised by some of the things that The Beaver has to offer.
The story starts with family man and toy company CEO Walter Black (Gibson) stuck in the deepest throes of depression. He can’t get the energy to do anything and his family and work life crumble around him while he hides from it all by sleeping as much as possible. His wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) buries herself in her work to get through the hard time, his youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is missing the strong fatherly influence that Walter can’t provide anymore, and his oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is trying his hardest to be as different from his father as possible. When Walter finally finds himself at his emotional rock bottom, his psyche finally snaps to the point where he can only successfully communicate through a beaver hand puppet.
Sounds like a set up for a ridiculous comedy, but this movie is far more serious and somber than the set up would imply. Walter’s bout with his depression is at the center of the story and how it touches every aspect of his life in some way, and the Beaver says a number of times that Walter is sick and needs help, which he does. And while it is a crazy idea, a person talking through a hand puppet and running his big toy company and managing his life through the puppet, it is dealt with in a very real life and practical way. People have reasonable and realistic reactions when confronted with this scenario, and it definitely came across as if this could really happen to an extent. Now there is a point in the story where it gets a little unbelievable in terms of the public reaction (I’m looking at you, Matt Lauer), but for the most part it all works very well. It is interesting to see how his family reacts to his decision to talk with a funny accent through this puppet and refer to himself in the third person and how this eventually helps to heal his family, even if only in small increments. Baby steps, after all.
There’s also a subplot about oldest son Porter and how he makes money by writing papers for other students at his high school and how he falls in with a hot cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence) when she hires him to write her valedictorial graduation speech, but really it is all an excuse to show how he is similar to his sick father and how badly he wants to be different. He even keeps a list of his father’s ticks and habits that he shares, in an effort to systematically remove them from his own life, but the harder he tries to be different, the more he becomes like his father, especially when things go wrong for him and he experiences his own bout of sleep inducing depression.
If The Beaver was a little indie film made by some “no-name” filmmakers and starring someone far less notorious, it would probably be championed right now as a great indie drama, but instead it feels like it is being ignored for the most part. And that’s a shame because it is surprisingly good. Foster is a good director, and she made some bold choices, like constantly showing Walter and the Beaver in the same shot, trusting that the imagery would come across as dramatic and compelling and not simply silly looking, and it helps that this is one of Gibson’s strongest performances ever. It’s fascinating to watch him play this split personality, Walter is so hurt and vunerable while the Beaver is so strong and confident and he has these two characters conversing with each other and existing in the same body at the same time. Again, this could have been silly or ridiculous or over the top, but they keep it grounded and real and a little frightening at times, and it works really well.
The Beaver is a good movie, but the packed summer movie season and the Gibson baggage is ensuring that it gets a super slow roll out in theaters and dies something of a slow box office death. It might take awhile for people to get around to “discovering” this one, but it’ll likely gain a nice audience down the road, and you can look for it now in theaters and get the jump on everyone else. Or you can go on hating Mel Gibson and just ignore the movie totally, up to you.
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