Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jodie Foster
Stars: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence.
There have been a number of films dealing with the issue of depression and mental breakdowns, but The Beaver is a challenging film that takes an unusual and bizarre route, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. Jodie Foster’s films as a director (Little Man Tate and 1995’s more comedic and lightweight Home For The Holidays) are shaped by psychological insights into dysfunctional characters and family situations. Her first film as a director in 16 years is The Beaver, an exploration of a man in the grip of a crippling depression that also affects his family.
Walter Black (played by Mel Gibson) is the head of a toy manufacturing company, who suddenly withdraws into himself and falls into a black pit of despair. His behaviour alienates his family and also sends his business into stasis. But his life hits a low point with a failed suicide attempt. Walter finds unexpected salvation when he picks up a furry hand puppet from a garbage bin. The puppet is shaped like a beaver, and Walter projects his personality through it.
The beaver voices Walter’s thoughts in a thick Cockney accent that sounds like a cross between Michael Caine and Ray Winstone. But voicing his thoughts through the puppet seems to have a positive effect on Walter, who emerges from his funk and slowly endears himself to his family, including his long-suffering wife Meredith (Foster) and his youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart).
However, his adolescent son Porter (Anton Yelchin, from the reboot of Star Trek, etc) is still deeply affected by his father’s irrational behaviour. He fears that he is inheriting some of his father’s troubling characteristics, and he has jotted own all of the similarities on post-it notes in his bedroom. A brilliant student he ghostwrites assignments and essays for other students because he seems able to replicate their own “voice” through his writing. Porter is approached by Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, from Winter’s Bone and the recent X Men First Class, etc), the school’s dux, to write her graduation speech. Outwardly confident and successful, she too has problems of her own that she is struggling to deal with. This subplot of Porter using another voice to communicate and make connections cleverly and subtly parallels Walter’s own journey, and is sensitively handled by Foster and first time feature writer Kyle Killen.
Killen’s screenplay has been around for quite some time as it has long been thought unfilmable. The original concept was also far more comedic, and may have suited Jim Carrey. However, this film journeys into darker territory, as the beaver puppet slowly seems to take over Walter’s personality. As Walter seems to becomes more controlled by the puppet, I was reminded of the 1945 British thriller Dead Of Night, and more chillingly of Richard Attenborough’s Magic in which Anthony Hopkins’ ventriloquist was possessed by his malevolent dummy.
Foster’s direction is competent and straightforward, but there are no real cinematic flourishes here. Gibson has rarely shown this vulnerable or emotional side of himself on screen and delivers a solid and restrained performance that reminds us that he is a good actor with the right material. However, his performance here is likely to be overshadowed by the baggage of his very public meltdown and off screen antics, and there is some irony to be found in the film’s opening shot. Foster gives a surprisingly passive performance as Meredith, who also comes across as the film’s least interesting character. Both Lawrence and Yelchin provide strong support with excellent performances.
As a dark psychodrama about depression and its crippling effects The Beaver certainly has star power, but its treatment of a serious and taboo issue is uneven and a little glib. Lars Von Trier’s upcoming Melancholia, which recently screened at MIFF, is a far more personal and devastatingly bleak look at depression. And the sight of Gibson finding redemption through a hand puppet takes a healthy suspension of disbelief.