The opening shot of The Beaver is of a pool on a sunny day. A body drifts through the frame, slowly, on a raft. It’s Mel Gibson doing his best impression of a starship and The Beaver doing its best impression of Star Wars. It’s kind of a foreboding image. Walter Black isn’t doing so well. He’s depressed. But, more than that, he’s depressed to the point where he has completely checked out on his job and family. He has somehow reached such a hopeless state that he has sat passively and watched his once great toy company fall into financial straits, and his once loving family become isolated from one another. We are never explicitly told what has led to Walter’s current state, but The Beaver is mostly a film that focuses on the present moment. The past exists here as a ghost, haunting the characters and coloring their actions, but only half remembered and never spoken of.
The big gimmick of the film, if you haven’t seen any of the advertising, is that Gibson’s character begins to deal with his inner turmoil by speaking through a plush beaver puppet and using a voice that sounds like Michael Caine in a bar fight. Much of the film details the phases of Walter’s beaver experiment; the initial shock, the turnaround when The Beaver starts helping Walter get his life back together, and then the darker stuff that comes as his mental state degrades again. If you saw only the ads, then you might think the story of Walter and The Beaver was all that this movie had to offer. But that’s not true. This isn’t really a movie about a crazy guy and his wacky puppet. It’s about a father and a son.
In addition to his puppet friend, Walter also has a wife and two sons. His youngest, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), is still a kid, and thinks his dad is something of a hero. The oldest, Porter (Anton Yelchin), is a teenager, and he keeps a list of things that he has in common with his father hung up in his room. It’s his immediate goal to systematically eradicate every one of them. Walter’s tale of ongoing neurosis plays parallel to Porter’s attempts at wooing his school’s valedictorian. A lot of the tension is created by the question of whether either will succeed in finding themselves, and whether or not that success will bring them back together. Director Jodie Foster and her cinematographer Hagen Bodanski make sure to keep both stories connected in your mind by shooting Gibson and Yelchin as mirror images. Several times we get fade transitions from Walter’s face to Porter’s. At multiple points the situations they are in become analogous to one another. You would think that Walter’s more outlandish story getting short shrift because of a teenage romance would be a negative, but Foster and her screenplay always make sure to present the characters with enough interest and depth that both stories resonate, even if watching Mel Gibson eat scenery with a beaver puppet on his hand is more entertaining than teenage ennui.
Still, I’ll sit through pretty much any amount of teen drama as long as actors like Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence bring it to life. The performances are maybe the most successful element of The Beaver. Gibson and Yelchin get the most to do, and both are really great, but they are always surrounded by strong supporting actors that push them to be even better. Gibson puts on a big show when he is projecting through The Beaver and struggling to maintain his own identity, but his best moments are the quieter ones when he is trying to repair a broken relationship with his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster). Both actors have authoritative, veteran screen presences, and it’s a joy to watch them play off of each other; Foster playing the supporting rock that’s cracking under the pressure of keeping her family together, and Gibson a destructive force that winds up ruining everything he touches. Anton Yelchin’s performances have, to this point, been powered by youthful exuberance. There is an excitable optimism to the guy, even when he’s playing an angst-ridden character that is literally beating his head against the wall. Consequently, he makes you root for him no matter what he’s doing. Here he’s mostly paired with Lawrence, whose personality plays on screen almost as a polar opposite. While Yelchin is often animated and youthful, Lawrence projects calmness and maturity far past her years. Watching the push and pull of Yelchin’s prying character trying to connect with Lawrence’s very guarded one is a lot of fun. Gibson and Foster are screen icons at this point in their careers, but if I were to have to put money on names that will make up the next generation after they are gone, Yelchin and Lawrence would be right up there at the top.
This isn’t a film that’s going to play to everyone though. There’s social commentary that will fly past a lot of people who were hoping for a more lighthearted take on a man and his puppet. We have a subplot detailing Walter’s rise back to the top of the business world and subsequent crash back to Earth that acts as an allegory for modern society’s tendency to put people on a platform, bleed them dry, and then cast them aside. Forget Gibson’s own real life personal issues, what happens to Walter Black as he gets paraded across the entirety of our visual media is almost chilling when viewed in the context of the recent Charlie Sheen debacle. And the changing tone of the film will throw many off as well. I imagine even a lot of critics will criticize The Beaver for having an inconsistent tone, but I don’t think that’s true. The tone isn’t inconsistent; it’s developing. As the character’s situations change, the tone of the film changes. We go from something darkly comedic, to something flirting with heartwarming, to something that sinks to darker levels than a lot of people will expect or be comfortable with. That’s not easy to digest, but neither is life. It’s messy and forever changing. And as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride, wherever it takes you, watching The Beaver is a well-realized, palpable experience in living.
The Upside: If this sort of off the beaten path fare is to your liking, and you’re able to separate bad feelings you might have about Mel Gibson the person with this performance given by Mel Gibson the actor, then The Beaver is one of the most unique, affecting films that you’re likely to see this year.
The Downside: A large segment of mainstream audiences aren’t going to be able to cope with the strange concept or handle the developing tone. And many will be too disgusted with the star to give The Beaver much of a chance.
On the Side: Jodie Foster said that throughout the process of making this movie she was asked repeatedly by everyone she talked to whether or not she was eventually going to change the title. She refused.