Movie Review: The Beaver
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2011
Directed by: Jodie Foster
Stars: 3 out of 5
"The Beaver" is an unexpected, star-studded story about mental illness and the love of a family. Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and Anton Yelchin, the movie follows a man who uses a beaver puppet to communicate with the world.
The story opens on Walter Black (played by Mel Gibson), a depressed man who has just been kicked out by his wife, Meredith (played by Jodie Foster). Feeling like his life is over, Walter tries to take his own life in a sequence that feels more like a comedy than a traumatic incident in a tragic life. The juxtaposition of the cheery music with the stark images of Walter's suicide attempt creates the feeling of a light, irreverent movie that sets viewers at ease.
After he fails to take his life, Walter finds a new take on life. He stops talking as himself, opting instead to communicate with a filthy beaver hand puppet that he fished out of a pile of trash and grime. In the face of his recent breakdown, Walter decides that he is irreparably flawed as a person-in response, he decides to start over, to create a new personality and way of being.
At this point, it is Gibson's considerable skill as an actor and Foster's talent as a director that keep the story from going off the rails. Walter comes back to his life at home and work, but refuses to talk to anyone. Instead, he continues to use the puppet as a medium. The Beaver has a lowbrow British accent and exhibits supreme confidence in all situations, most notably those with which the old Walter struggled to handle. While he is speaking through the puppet, Walter is able to keep his own issues at bay, which allows him to work through his problems. The Beaver becomes an unexpected source of comfort and helps this troubled man deal with the mental and emotional hurdles in his life.
While Walter is lost in his creative therapy exercise, his family members must handle the stress in their own ways. Foster's character is accepting at first, but insists that her husband leave the puppet at home during a celebratory dinner. Her plan backfires and Walter's uncomfortable physical response demonstrates the true depth of his inner turmoil. His children have predictably different responses. The younger son, Henry (played by Riley Thomas Stewart), accepts his father's methods, but the older child, Porter (played by Anton Yelchin), has a hard time accepting the embarrassment. The family drama revolves around the heredity of mental illness and the constant worry that it may be passed on to younger generations.
Mel Gibson shines in a difficult role. Viewers who keep up on entertainment news will be moved by the similarities of Walter's troubles to Gibson's own public struggle with emotional health. Were it not for the actor's considerable talent and subtle performance, the movie would have failed in spectacular fashion. As it is, Gibson internalizes the inner grief of his character and shows it in the smallest facial expressions or physical movements. His performance is painfully real and viewers can almost feel the war that is raging in Walter's head and heart.
Jodie Foster also displays remarkable skill as a director, using shots that lend to the believability of the film. The Beaver becomes a character in his own right, helped along by close-ups that allow viewers to focus on the puppet rather than the operator. After a while, it is easy to picture Gibson and his puppet as two separate people. Foster's character, on the other hand, is weak and somewhat pathetic, so viewers may have a hard time relating to her struggle. The actress is not quite able to shed her strong, steady persona and, as a result, her character is not believable.
Writer Kyle Killen has taken an unlikely story and built it into a weighty, emotional drama. At times, the sheer weight of sadness and suffering in "The Beaver" feels overwhelming. Each character has a deep history of pain and the film lacks the lightness that would be required to provide viewers with a sense of hope. Although the conclusion of the movie is positive, audiences may be left with a feeling of sadness.
Overall, "The Beaver" is an entertaining look at a dysfunctional American family and the painful consequences of mental illness. Although it deals with serious, painful issues, the movie does so with a quirky sense of humor and an unfailing acceptance. It treats each character with love and the result is worth watching for the whole family.