There’s a lot to admire in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, starting with Mel Gibson’s raw, painful performance as a man whose only out of a crippling depression is the use of a beaver puppet as his intermediary with the world. That said there isn’t a lot to love, besides the film’s dogged determination to show depression in as realistic a light as possible. Uneven in tone and with a not entirely successful narrative, The Beaver is emotionally ambitious but not ultimately very flawed.
In most movies depression isn’t a sickness, it’s triggered by something, whether it be the loss of a child or a job or some other run of bad luck. But in real life clinical depression rarely needs a good excuse to hit, just as in real life cancer can often hit without a dramatic radiation exposure. In The Beaver the depression Walter Black, Gibson’s character, suffers is an illness all its own. A sourceless black cloud that keeps him from functioning on almost any level, Walter’s depression slowly ruins his career and slowly tears his family apart. Finally Walter hits bottom and attempts suicide in a motel room but screws it up; in the aftermath he takes a bump on his head and, for reasons a little too arbitrary for my taste, wakes up with a beaver puppet on his hand. But this isn’t just a puppet - it’s a thing that talks and operates on its own, speaking in a thick Cockney accent and trying to help Walter climb out of his pit of despair.
The puppet is proactive and funny and interesting and lends the film a real energy. But the puppet’s also terrible for Walter; it’s a crutch, the way alcohol or drugs are a crutch, and eventually as destructive as those things. The problem becomes the fact that the puppet ends up being a crutch for the movie too; it’s more fun watching Gibson with the puppet than Gibson against the puppet, or without the puppet.
The film’s other major problem is the tone. The first half of The Beaver is wryly funny, but as the film approaches the third act much of the humor slips out and the proceedings take a turn for the overly serious. I applaud Foster’s attempt to tackle such a tricky tonal change, but she isn’t able to nail it; there’s a clunkiness that pulls you out of the film’s delicate emotional work. As a result stuff at the end that should be touching lands with a thud.
Which is too bad because the film comes so close to being really great. Even the movie’s unnecessary subplot - Gibson’s son, played by Anton Yelchin, falls in love with a popular girl at school, played by the luminescent Jennifer Lawrence - works. Writer Kyle Killen makes the subplot thematically resonant with the main story, and he creates two teen characters who feel like people and not like caricatures, which is a welcome relief.
The fact that The Beaver is being released after Mel Gibson’s latest round of personal troubles is a blessing and a curse. Watching Walter’s self-destruction is much more poignant when you realize how close to reality it all is for Gibson; in a better world playing this part would have helped him exorcise those demons. But one of The Beaver’s points is that there is no easy way to deal with depression, no miracle cure or sudden self-help trick that will take you out of the pit. It’s a long, hard road that you hopefully travel with the love and support of those around you - which is a very un-Hollywood sentiment, and another of the brave things The Beaver does that makes me root for it, despite all of its problems.
Gibson’s performance is remarkable. Nuanced and brutally honest, he doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of depression but also doesn’t go over the top when Walter is talking through the puppet. It would be easy to make The Beaver much wackier, and we’ve certainly seen Gibson, a huge fan of The Three Stooges, go broader. But he doesn’t bring that here, choosing instead to let his face sag, his mouth turn down and his eyes reflect a lifetime of hurting. If anyone does end up seeing The Beaver it could be the best thing that ever happened to Gibson’s public image - there’s no way to look at the performance and not realize the actor is just using his every day pain.
It’s amazing that The Beaver got made at all. The premise seems ludicrous and more fitting for a wacky comedy that goes suddenly maudlin at the end. The actual film is honest about depression in ways few films ever are, and it dares to go places that are very dark. Its central metaphor is a complex one that will likely sail over the heads of many viewers. It’s impossible to hate a movie that is as risky, brave and sensitive as this one. But it’s very possible to wish that it had been better. Jodie Foster just isn’t the director for the material, and so what could have been a revelatory movie instead becomes just a pretty good movie with incredibly laudable goals.