SXSW Review: ‘The Beaver’ is Serious, And Seriously Good

By  · Published on March 18th, 2011

Ten minutes in to Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, you may forget that you’re watching Mel Gibson. In light of all the things that have happened to Gibson off-screen, this is probably a good thing. But more importantly, it is something that any actor sets out to accomplish in every role they play: total immersion. It’s that immersion that makes this one of Gibson’s best performances to date. Could it be the best performance we’ve ever seen from him? That’s for history to decide. But this one is damn good. And it’s made better by the well-crafted film that surrounds him.

Gibson plays Walter Black, the inherited CEO of a struggling toy manufacturer who wants to do one thing and one thing only: sleep. Walter is deeply depressed, and no matter what his wife (played by Jodie Foster) or his two sons (Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart) do, they can’t bring him back to life. So he leaves home and heads to a hotel, hell bent on finding a solution for his problems. What he finds is that he’s not even qualified to bring it all to an end. And in his follies, he stumbles upon a dingy hand puppet in a dumpster. Moments later, with little explanation as to why, The Beaver is born. Seated atop Walter’s right hand, The Beaver (you can call him The Beaver) becomes the conduit through which Walter is able to interact with the people around him. He’s crass, speaks with a cockney accent and very protective of Walter. And even though it’s very strange, everyone around Walter gives him a chance. And it works.

Until it doesn’t. Which is where the greater metaphor of Walter’s story begins. This film, unlike many films about characters who find solutions for mental health problems, presents the quick and easy solution up front. With The Beaver on his hand, Walter is instantaneously cured of that which ails him. He’s back to work, back with his family at the dinner table and even back in bed showing his wife all of the sexy things a man can do with a puppet on one hand. It’s a tonal shift that is very discomforting to the film’s audience. Wait, we ask, why is his life all of the sudden good again? How will this all go wrong?

It does all go wrong again, but incrementally. Like real life, the situation for Walter gets better and worse. His relationship with his eldest son Porter, played by Anton Yelchin, continues to be strained even as Walter seemingly makes a comeback. Porter is skeptical of his father and resentful, keeping a list of all the similarities they share in hopes of someday ridding himself of any shared mannerisms and traits. And he’s got his own problems; Nora, a girl that he’s been crushing on at school (played by Jennifer Lawrence) has final taken an interest in him thanks to his side business of writing papers for other students. Because you see, Porter loves his ability to write papers for fellow students in their own voice because it allows him to get inside their heads and understand them. And in Nora, he sees not only someone he likes but someone who is damaged under the surface, someone he may be able to fix.

Perhaps he is this way because he can neither understand nor fix his father. It’s just one example of the dynamic nature of the story being told by Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen. It’s not just a story about a man suffering from deep depression, it’s the story of a family suffering from a man’s deep depression; the story of a son wishing to break free from a family history of illness and make a connection with another damaged soul.

It’s all pretty grim in many ways. Or at least it can seem that way. And therein lies the rub with The Beaver; it’s a film that has plenty of comedy in its situation, but has unnerving sorrow in its actual story. Seeing Mel Gibson do his best Ray Winstone impression to voice The Beaver, and watching how everyone around him reacts to the situation, leads to some laughs. But when the surface-level humor is gone, we’re left watching a deeply broken man try to piece his family back together.

The entire film works back and forth between these two worlds – the humor and the sorrow – creating a tonal imbalance that would be problematic for a lesser film. It’s awkward the way the film’s humor and often rapid pacing work along with the catharsis of Walter’s story. Almost as if it never decides what kind of tone it wants to strike to the audience. But taken as a greater metaphor for Walter’s recovery, the film moves up and down, like life. Up and down, like the rollercoasters that Walter’s estranged wife designs over late-night conference calls that keep her busy and distant from her husband. Up and down, just as recovery from any illness is; you have your good days and your bad days, and there’s no one single day when everything is instantly fixed. As Walter discovers, his life can’t be fixed by The Beaver. But it’s all part of the process.

Through Mel Gibson’s performance though, there’s a deep bond that forms between Walter and the audience. We’re not watching a man who is losing his mind, we’re watching a man who is genuinely broken. He nails it. The same can be said for Yelchin, who works in perfect balance as the disconnected son. It’s the kind of layered, jaded youth that we’ve seen him play before, and he’s equally good here. To her credit, Jodie Foster is able to simultaneously direct with a steady hand, balancing those tonal shifts, and make Walter’s wife a well-rounded character.

Like life, there is no easy way through The Beaver. At first glance, its concept says comedy. But it’s no comedy. It’s a distressed tale of a family that has fallen apart, and the man who is trying to rebuild it even though every ounce of his being is working against him. It’s a film that exhibits a director doing her best work, paired with a duo of actors doing the best of theirs. Not the movie you’d expect about a guy and his hand puppet, but it’s a movie with plenty to say. It earns its laughs and its dramatic effect. And when it’s all over, we’re left feeling like we’ve been on a significant journey in the lives of the characters. And we’re glad we were able to tag along. Because these are the kinds of journeys that one shouldn’t have to take alone.

The Upside: Finds laughs in the situation, balances that well with the distressed family story. Mel Gibson and Anton Yelchin are superb.

The Downside: The back and forth tonal shifts in the film won’t work well for everyone, even if they can be taken as a higher metaphor.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)