Dir. Jodie Foster; writ. Kyle Killen; feat. Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin. (PG-13)
Full disclosure: I very nearly hate Mel Gibson. I’ve heard the tapes and I’m comfortable in the knowledge that he’s a mentally disturbed, entitled, violent, anti-Semitic misogynist, and a racist. Short of a select few “-ists,” that almost completes my mental “awful human being” checklist. Before I saw the film, I didn’t even want to review it, opting instead for the Chris Brown blacklist policy. I couldn’t imagine what possible illusion he could pull off to make me look at his face on the big screen with anything but contempt, not only for him as an actor but for any movie that would have him. No, I’m not objective.
Imagine my disbelief when, 10 minutes into The Beaver, I found myself utterly captivated. Either by dent of his own self-loathing, serendipitous screenwriting, or Gibson’s and director Jodie Foster’s gut instinct for cinematic redemption, the film allows — even invites — those biases and overcomes them with acknowledgment, charm, and delicacy.
Via voiceover, we immediately learn that Gibson’s character, Walter Black, became CEO of his father’s toy company a couple of years ago and has not been the same ever since. Overwhelmed by his duties, he has sunken into a depression that borders on catatonia. He hates himself and wants to die. He’s completely checked out at home, ignoring his wife (Foster) and his two kids, the older of whom (Anton Yelchin) has taken to banging his head against his bedroom wall to, I don’t know, feel something.
Foster’s camera holds forever on Black’s bedraggled face; these aren’t close-ups, they’re mug shots. He tries to hang himself with a shower curtain, then opts to plummet from a hotel balcony. At the risk of sounding morbid, audience members who hate Gibson as a man might even welcome this rock bottom with more than a little schadenfreude.
Suddenly, Black’s childhood hand puppet — a beaver — begins talking to him in Black’s affected cockney accent. (It should be noted that Black is clearly doing the speaking — there’s nothing supernatural going on here. Just a crazy man and a puppet.) The beaver tells him to get his life together and offers to let Black fade away completely while the puppet interacts with society for him.
Thanks to the puppet — and only through the puppet — Black comes alive again. He’s a hit at work and at home, though his older son remains skeptical, and for good reason: There’s nothing about this behavior that’s healthy.
Meanwhile, Yelchin’s Porter takes up with popular girl Norah (Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence) under the guise of writing her valedictorian speech for her. She opens up about her brother’s death, they tag a wall and get arrested, while Porter works out his daddy issues … all of it taking up way too much screen time. This subplot is treated as a parallel plot, and it’s all wrong. While Yelchin is a real talent, Lawrence seems wooden and not altogether committed to her role — a dangerous misstep for one of the fastest rising stars in Hollywood.
When we get back to Gibson and Foster as the married couple alternately enjoying and torturing themselves over this last glimpse of a connection, the screen is electric. The Beaver is a miracle shot from half-court. It serves as both a rumination on the actor’s behavior — Gibson’s Black and the puppet/narrator make it clear throughout that the man behind the puppet is nothing less than broken — and as a forceful reminder of his power as a thespian.
It made me remember that Gibson once spearheaded a doomed Three Stooges adaptation — he’s that spry as the beaver’s operator — and it made me mourn that loss a tiny bit. He was always best as the cad, the livewire who could make you laugh even as he’s running from an exploding building. I’ll never be able to watch that Gibson again, and I suspect most won’t. After all, needle-threading scripts like this are one in a million, and the odds of it working were so small to begin with. (The writer, Kyle Killen, was an unknown when this script topped the “Black List” — an unofficial survey of the best unproduced scripts circulating agents’ desks — in 2008.)
So this could be a great swan song or a rebirth. Either way, it’s quite special.
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