The Beaver

Mel Gibson puts his dark side to good use.

Also in Slate, Jessica Grose interviews Jodie Foster, director of The Beaver.

The Beaver. Click image to expand.
The Beaver

I know plenty of people who wouldn’t pay to see a Mel Gibson movie if it were the occasion for the Second Coming (or, depending on your religious affiliation, the first). Gibson’s off-screen scandals of the past few years—the anti-Semitism, the accusations of domestic abuse, the drunk driving, the racist hate speech —have repulsed many viewers so thoroughly that the notion of spending two hours looking at the man’s face simply strikes them as beyond the pale.

I won’t say thatThe Beaver (Summit Entertainment), Jodie Foster’s new seriocomic film starring Mel Gibson as a man in the throes of a deeply weird midlife crisis is good enough that diehard Gibson boycotters should compromise their values to see it. But if you continue to be fascinated by this talented, volatile, messed-up man—if your Mel curiosity hasn’t been completely squelched by your Mel disgust—it’s worth experiencing what may be Gibson’s finest performance to date.

Not everything about The Beaver (from a long-kicked-around script by first-timer Kyle Killen) hangs together—it feels at times as if several different movies have been inexpertly soldered onto the same base. But Gibson’s grasp of his character—a depressed toy-company executive named Walter Black, who’s been kicked out of his house after years spent wallowing in drink and misery—is absolute. Depression and self-hatred are clearly things this man understands from the inside out. At the same time, The Beaver gives Gibson a chance to remind us how funny he’s capable of being. (Remember the Mel of Lethal Weapon days—the pre-bombastic, pre-self-righteous, winningly self-deprecating Mel?) There aren’t many actors who could bring this much hard-won pain and regret to a role in which 90 percent of their screen time was spent interacting with a plush hand puppet.

About that puppet: Walter, hurling his belongings into a dumpster on the day he’s finally thrown out by his wife, finds a discarded stuffed beaver. Something about the creature’s googly-eyed gaze makes him rescue it from the garbage, and, as he lies on his hotel room floor in a drunken stupor, the beaver begins to speak to him—or is he speaking to it?—delivering a harsh, no-nonsense pep talk in a thick cockney accent. (Gibson makes no attempt to throw his voice ventriloquist-style when speaking as the puppet—the fact that his lips continue to move normally only adds to the sense of uncanniness.) With a convert’s sudden zeal, Walter decides that this act of externalization represents the only way out of his current slump. He types up cards explaining that the beaver is a “prescription puppet,” part of a radical new treatment protocol (“It’s very big in Sweden”), and begins wearing the buck-toothed creature on his arm everywhere he goes: to work, to bed, in the shower, even—creepily but hilariously—while having sex with his wife.

Weirdest of all, the prescription puppet works, at least at first. Walter is soon living back at home, reconnecting with his wife and younger son. His teenaged son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), keeps his distance, convinced that his father, whom he already distrusted, has lost his marbles for good. Porter, himself a depressive in the making, forges a tentative connection with the troubled valedictorian at his school ( Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence, sensational in what could have been a throwaway role). At work, though, Walter’s furry alter ego is working miracles, where his pugnacious management style urges the toy company to new heights of success.

Just when beaver-based therapy is starting to seem like the wave of the future, Walter’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, and the film grows darker, less funny, and ultimately more predictable. What seemed for the first hour like a send-up of therapeutic clichés becomes, in the second, a ratification of them. The final resolution of the Walter/puppet relationship struck me as disingenuously facile—I won’t reveal whether the film’s ending is sad or happy, but let’s just split the difference and call it sappy.

There’s much about The Beaver that feels slightly off; black comedy and feel-good family drama is a tough mix of moods to sustain. Foster’s own performance, as Walter’s wife, feels curiously stiff and inaccessible. It’s notoriously hard for an actor to direct his or herself on-screen, which may account for the lack of warmth in Foster’s scenes with Gibson. But for all its missteps, The Beaver won me over—first, for Mel Gibson’s raw, aching performance and, second, because this oddball movie is so simply and stubbornly itself. It’s not as if there’s a glut of dramas out there involving mental illness and semi-aquatic rodents.