A Beaver Tale

The Beaver ★★★★
(USA, 91 min.)
Dir: Jodie Foster; Writ: Kyle Killen.
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones.
It’s no secret that everyone has one question on their mind when approaching The Beaver: is it possible to watch Mel Gibson act crazy after he himself has gone nuts? The answer is a pleasantly surprising, “yes.” However, it’s also a bit of “no” as well. The reason why one must play Devil’s advocate with Jodie Foster’s Beaver is that the film is great stuff, but it’s arguably a completely different event than it would have been had Gibson stayed sane. If anything, though, Gibson’s notoriety adds to the film experience of The Beaver, much like how one gets a cheap thrill in watching Robert Blake in David Lynch’s Lost Highway after he was charged with the murder of his wife. 

Gibson stars as Walter Black, a run-down CEO of an equally tired toy company. Walter is also unhappily married to Meredith (Foster), who cannot seem to cope with Walter’s unending moroseness. The third strike against Walter’s happiness is his poor relationship with his eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin). Despite their similarities, Porter’s greatest ambition is simply to not become his father.
Thinking he has failed at everything, Walter tries to end it all, but he screws that up too. In a moment of post-suicidal clarity, Walter discovers the cure for his despair atop the garbage pile within a dumpster – a ratty old beaver puppet. Walter finds his voice through the beaver (he finds a British accent as well) and the beaver affords Walter the necessary confidence to better his situation by using a surrogate for his own life while he acts as a passive observer. 

Walter’s treatment requires him to sport the beaver at all hours of the day, be it at home, at work, or in the shower. The Beaver offers plenty of amusing situational humour as Walter’s family members and co-workers adjust to his unorthodox treatment. The film also has some clever moments in which Walter converses with the beaver as if he were in a treatment session with a psychotherapist, and it’s amazing what witty little insights emerge from the furry guy’s mouth. At the same time, though, The Beaver becomes increasingly sad as when one realizes the extent to which the beaver is not curing Walter’s depression, but rendering it more severe.
Once The Beaver takes a dark turn in its latter half, the film becomes surprisingly distressing. One can partly attribute the shift in tone to the extreme difficulty one has in distancing Gibson’s performance from his star persona. As Walter’s expression becomes increasingly desperate and his eyes glaze over with misty melancholy, one cannot help but watch and wonder if Gibson is using the role to deal with his own inner turmoil. Regardless of whether Gibson’s mental breakdown occured before, during, or after shooting The Beaver, one can appreciate the complexity and depth of his performance. By using the beaver, Gibson manages to be simultaneously funny and sad. While his hands and mouth channel his comedic edge into the beaver, his face frequently conveys the opposite emotion. Gibson’s dual performance allows The Beaver be a darkly comical and observationally astute portrait of mental illness.
Jodie Foster deserves equal praise for her sensitive handling of the material as well, both as an actress and as a director. As Meredith, Foster gives one of her more forceful and moving performances of late; as director, she demonstrates a careful and honest rendering of complicated family matters with a success similar to her earlier film Little Man Tate. Foster’s skill as an actress resonates within her role as a director because she entrusts a substantial degree of focus upon dialogue and character, and she allows her actors to drive the dramatic power of the film. She is particularly successful with the younger performers of the film, especially Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Porter’s friend Norah. The strong performances are especially appreciable given that the screenplay by Kyle Killen devotes almost too much attention to the subplot between Porter and Norah, but Lawrence and Yelchin make their story engaging rather than extraneous.
Foster’s reliance on the performances causes The Beaver to be less expressive through the cinematic elements. However, the cinematography by Hagen Bodanski is nevertheless quite good at capturing the complexity of Walter’s situation by intricately shifting the focus of the picture so that the shots convey Walter's disorientation. The sound levels, however, are often a little too muted – one almost needs to strain to hear Anton Yelchin during some of the film’s climactic moments. Overall, though, Foster’s assured work in The Beaver shows much progress as a director.

Despite the strength of Foster and her collaborators, Gibson’s performance is easily the reason to see the film. Moviegoers should keep an open mind during The Beaver and do their best to put aside whatever personal feelings they harbour about the controversial star. If audiences succeed in this difficult task, they can appreciate one of the strongest – and most interesting – performances seen so far in 2011.

The Beaver is currently playing at The Mayfair in Ottawa.