As a result of his more recent notoriety, Mel Gibson has become a figure of extreme public scrutiny: a prime example of persona non grata. All of the negative attention, justly deserved or not, has affected the way people perceive Gibson not only as a person, but, I fear, as an actor as well. If this is truly the case, it is a lamentable one since, despite never reaching the levels of respect attained by say a Brando or DeNiro, Mel Gibson is (or was) a star of considerable regard. Sure, he is a handsome fella and exudes masculinity, but most notably, Gibson is extremely charismatic. Almost all of the movies he has starred in have been memorable primarily because of his performances. His Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series is arguably the main reason there’s been four of those movies. As a younger version of myself, I would often catch Bird on a Wire on television, well aware of its overall mediocrity, but ultimately transfixed by Gibson’s magnetic presence. And the only thing I remember about the chick-flick fluff called What Women Want is being delighted every once in a while by his comic timing.
Although I may seem to be gregariously gushing over Gibson’s talents as an actor, I must say that I don’t own a single movie he’s starred in, nor have I watched any more than twice. Whereas his performances have been very memorable, I’ve often found the movies to be less-so. That is, until now. In addition to proving once again how accomplished an actor Gibson can be, especially considering the extremely un-Gibson-like nature of his performance, The Beaver, as directed by Jodie Foster, is a powerful piece of work, in spite of its histrionic tendencies.
Gibson plays Walter Black, an extremely depressed individual whose sickness has become so debilitating that he does nothing more than sleep. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Walter has been kicked out of his house by his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) since his presence is negatively affecting the family dynamic, though she still loves him deeply. Walter and Meredith have two boys: Porter, the oldest, played by Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett), and Henry, a grade-schooler who is particularly susceptible to his father’s disease since he’s already practically invisible to the other kids at school. Porter celebrates his mother’s decision. He hates his father for how weak he’s become and fears he’s going to turn out just like him.
One night, Walter comes across a beaver hand-puppet lying in a dumpster. After a long night of drinking and attempted suicide, Walter puts on the mangy puppet and it begins to talk to him in a Cockney accent. Through the beaver, Walter is once again able to communicate.
It’s this type of plot description that would make others instantly scoff at The Beaver and write it off as something utterly absurd. If they were going by the trailer alone, I wouldn’t blame them. The setup sounds extremely silly. But Walter’s depression is handled in such a devastatingly serious manner that we truly believe he needs some sort of outlet through which he can communicate. It just so happens that that outlet comes in the form of an old, used beaver hand-puppet. The decision to make the puppet speak in a Cockney accent again seems ridiculous at first. But when you consider the fact that Walter hates himself so much he can’t stand to hear his own voice, an exaggerated Cockney accent starts to make sense because it’s so different from how he normally speaks.
Mel Gibson’s performance is particularly outstanding for how little he reveals of the real Walter Black. The majority of his lines are spoken through the voice of the beaver. We never get a sense of who Walter really is because he is full of such self-loathing it pains him to speak naturally. The moments when Meredith forces Walter to talk to her as her husband and not as the puppet are indicative of Gibson’s talents as an actor. Without the beaver, Walter instantly reverts back to the empty shell of a man he was before the puppet entered his life and the way in which Gibson executes these transitions between confidence and weakness are masterful in their believability.
A significant amount of time is spent on Walter’s son Porter, a high school senior. Thankfully, Porter’s story is just as engaging as Walter’s and the decision to devote so much of the script to what might have been a secondary character in a lesser film proves that, despite the potentially comic setup, the writer takes this subject matter very seriously. The ways in which Porter struggles with his identity in relation to his disturbed father are tragic in their depiction of just how deeply this type of depression can affect any and all loved ones. Additionally, the love story between Porter and Norah (the amazing Jennifer Lawrence), a classmate dealing with her own family-related demons, is extremely engaging, with enough substance to warrant an entire movie in its own right.
The Beaver becomes less interesting when it wanders away from the family dynamic. The storyline involving Walter’s newfound leadership through the voice of the puppet at the toy company he owns is entertaining but causes the movie to get off track, moving it back to the expected realm of light-hearted comedy rather than serious drama. Make no bones about it, this film is a deeply serious drama and eventually makes its way into some extremely dark territories. So dark, in fact, that, depending on your level of tolerance, the story might become laughably melodramatic. One scene in particular, during the climactic struggle between Walter and the overpowering beaver persona, straddles the dangerously thin line that can exist between being comical or deadly serious (a line, by the way, I am uncontrollably a great fan of, often, though unintentionally, to the detriment of others). Depending on your personality, moments like this might prove pivotal to your final opinion of the film.
As for me, I was pleasantly surprised and fascinated by The Beaver. Not only does it showcase one of Mel Gibson’s very best performances, but it handles the topic of debilitating depression in a very tragic, profoundly original, yet risky manner. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.