A man in crisis finds a strange new voice
by Jared Peterson
The beaver of The Beaver is a puppet—a ratty, felt version of that busy woodland animal thrown in a dumpster, cast off, perhaps, by some angry parent or unhappy child. This piece of trash, though, will change someone’s life.
For years, Walter Black (Mel Gibson, currently starring in his own tabloid version of Jekyll and Hyde) has struggled with a deep, debilitating depression. He’s tried every type of mainstream and alternative therapy, with no lasting success. He remains numbed to everything: his job, his family, his sense of self. Finally, for the sake and sanity of their family, Walter’s wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directs) asks him to leave. He buys some liquor and walks to a motel. The cast-off toy in the dumpster catches his sad, dark eye. He brings it back to his room, drinks the entire bottle of booze, tries and fails to hang himself, then accidentally drops a television set on his head. When he comes to, he puts the puppet on his hand and they have a chat.
At this point you may be thinking, “Oh, this is a comedy.” It’s not, really. Walter is severely depressed; his family is in genuine disarray. But whatever this is, this melding of man and muppet, it allows Walter to interact with the world again. In a gravelly, working-class British accent (your guess is as good as mine—but he’s actually not bad at it), Walter has his new friend explain what he needs and say what he cannot. In this odd manner he is able to reach out to his family, starting with his young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), who is too young to understand it all and assumes it’s just a never-ending playtime. Meredith, confused and frightened at first, lets relief and affection gradually take over.
Walter’s older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is not won over. A senior in high school, his resentment has reached a boiling point. He’s covered his bedroom wall with a list of his father’s worst traits, determined to purge himself of every one. He also earns some illicit cash writing essays for his classmates—showing that, like his father, he finds it difficult to find and use his own voice. Meanwhile, Walter and his companion seem to be growing increasingly distinct, its voice increasingly brusque and even hostile. What was once depressive behavior begins to look like something altogether different. The danger with any therapy, of course, is that it will become a crutch, and the crutch an affliction of its own.
The Beaver is the third directorial effort from Foster. In this and her other films, Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays, she chooses to focus on the forces that come to bear on the family unit, the pressure and torque that can push it to, then beyond, its structural limits. It’s interesting that Foster’s character in the film designs roller coasters. A common metaphor for family—“Ah, the ups and downs of it all”—it’s easy to ignore the thought and effort necessary to build that structure, and the vigilance necessary to maintain it. For most of us, it’s all about the ride; but Meredith can’t afford to ignore the threat of catastrophic collapse.
I was intrigued by the pairing of Foster and Gibson—the sharp, Ivy League superego and the Grand Wizard of id. The two share an ability to dramatize emotional pain—Foster with the smallest of winces, the pinch of a needle slowly drawing blood; Gibson with the drained or twisted face of a man nailed to a cross. However you feel about Gibson’s personal and legal travails, he’s a magnetic actor. As Walter, a man almost gone, Gibson is a good choice, I think.
Symbolism weighs heavily on this film, some of it subtle, some of it blatant. As an actor, Foster has mastered nuance; as a director, I don’t think it interests her much. This is no insult; she’s a fine director. She seems to want her films to be understood as much as they’re felt, and it’s better if it happens straight up and on the first viewing.
Finally, Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen deserve credit for facing head on the pervasive yet widely misunderstood and taboo nature of mental illness. In our society, the word “depressed” is still often used as a character trait or a punch line. But while it is certainly difficult to shorthand the complexity and the insidiousness of these diseases, but the “bump on the noggin” device is very disappointing. It’s a weak and ultimately misleading start to what is otherwise an earnest and compassionate look at a family in crisis. In the end, it may not matter—many viewers simply won’t be able to get over the silliness of that furry puppet with the funny accent. We laugh, lest we weep, I suppose—though we should be able to do both.
The Beaver is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference. That pretty much sums it up. The only thing left to contend with is how to use the name of the film in a sentence—any sentence—without it sounding dirty. Go on, try.