Mel Gibson finds his animal side in ‘The Beaver’

Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson in 'The Beaver' — Photo courtesy of Ken Regan / Summit Entertainment

Much has been said about Mel Gibson’s performance in The Beaver and how it might be an example of his artistic work channeling his personal life. In my eyes, Gibson’s off-screen antics should remain off screen, while his on-screen performance should be judged on its own merits. That said, The Beaver is an occasionally insightful look at how a family man faces severe bouts of depression. It works, but only to a degree.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a successful executive at a toy company who has a problem connecting with his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), and his sons, Porter (Anton Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). When he can’t stand the depression any longer, Walter does something that at first seems foolish, and then eventually is taken seriously: He comes home with a beaver puppet on his arm and proceeds to talk in a fake Australian accent as the person in charge of Walter’s body.

Everyone laughs when first seeing the beaver, but eventually the characters realize that this man is seriously sick and incapable of dropping the act. At the toy company, his co-workers can’t believe the development, thinking it’s a strange motivation technique. Cherry Jones plays the vice president working for Walter, and she needs to step in when the big boss loses his marbles.

At home, Meredith is flabergasted at her husband’s sickness, and Porter is embarassed and angry that one day he may become just like his father. To let out his frustration, Porter violently bangs his head against the bedroom wall, eventually breaking through the wood to the outside wall. The teenager’s only solace is when he gains the attention of the good-looking high school valedictorian played by Jennifer Lawrence.

The Beaver, directed by Foster and written by Kyle Killen, can’t quite achieve a consistent tempo. At times, it feels like we should laugh at Walter and the beaver, while at other times we feel like crying. Gibson offers a few powerful moments, but is also unable to offer a full characterization. Walter remains as much a mystery at the end of the film as he does at the beginning. This is likely the fault of both actor and screenwriter.

I appreciate the oddity behind the story, and on face value it works as a clever way to talk about depression and dissociative disorder. But the script and the characters can’t quite articulate what lessons are to be learned. The family life sequences feel genuine and real, while pretty much everything involving Walter’s work life is exaggerated. There’s even an unfortunate scene when the man and the beaver are interviewed by Matt Lauer on The Today Show — if only all clinically depressed people could gain such an audience.

Foster’s directing efforts work better than her character. Meredith is a woman who doesn’t seem to exist by herself; we only see her when she reacts to her husband’s increasing insanity. She simply isn’t defined enough as a main character. The same can be said for Yelchin’s Porter. The young guy bangs his head against the wall and sells his essay-writing skills to other students, but why he does such things are never explained or explored. His budding romance with Norah (Lawrence) is sweet, but seems more like plot filler than anything else.

The Beaver is the type of movie that one appreciates for its daring plot, but can’t quite recommend. At 91 minutes, it feels more like a preliminary sketch than a well constructed feature. Still, one hopes it works as some type of first step toward redemption for Gibson, an important filmmaker and not-too-shabby actor who has largely been missing from the silver screen.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • The Beaver

  • 2011

  • Directed by Jodie Foster

  • Written by Kyle Killen

  • Starring Mel Gibson, Foster, Anton Yelchin, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence

  • Running time: 91 minutes

  • Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference

  • Rating: ★★½☆

  • Click here to purchase The Beaver on DVD.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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