The Beaver (REVIEW)

The Beaver – REVIEW

By Darren Moverley – 8/10

Mel Gibson walks around with a scruffy beaver hand puppet which he rescued from a dumpster clamped firmly to his left mitt, talking to it in a strange cockney accent as if it is the most natural thing in the world. Given his well-publicized bizarre behaviour, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a description of Mad Mel’s latest alcohol-induced episode rather than the premise of his latest film. He’s been troubled for a long time, battling both alcohol addiction and depression – subjects that are covered with surprising poignancy in director Jodie Foster’s heartfelt film – so it is bold for Gibson to channel all his personal problems into the film; it is material that fits him like a glove, or indeed a glove puppet and seeing a star whose real life problems mirror that of the character is deeply fascinating to watch.

On paper, the premise doesn’t appear to have any potential to be made into a sincere screenplay. It seems like the kind of freak show idea that could be made into a throwaway Farrelly brothers light comedy about mental illness, or maybe a chance for Rob Schneider to shamelessly mug in some brash nonsense.

The reality of the film is a million miles away from how the idea looks on paper. It posed a tough challenge for the relatively inexperienced director Jodie Foster to syphon out the absurdity of the premise, but she succeeds admirably, playing down the obvious comic aspect of Gibson’s character’s condition and using the idea to create a character study into one man’s torrid and tumultuous self-destruction.

When we first meet Gibson’s character, Walter, he is a wreck of a man, his family is about to disown him and he has entirely succumbed to the wave of depression he is submerged under. He’s drowning, and in desperate need of a rescue or intervention, but no one understands his mental state, which leads him to a comically botched suicide attempt that is laced with very black comedy. He finds salvation in the most unlikely form – the Beaver.

You recognize very quickly that Walter’s creation of the Beaver is a deeply disturbing mental breakdown rather than something to snigger at. The man’s personality evidently splits in two, and the controlling influence is that of the glove puppet. The Beaver has a persona that contrasts Walter’s beaten man; the little puppet is assertive, firm articulate a born leader – unlike Walter, who is near catatonic prior to the beaver’s arrival. I defy anyone to not think of Ray Winstone when Gibson is in full on cockney accent mode. So Gibson in a way has Ray Winstone strapped to his hand, can you imagine anything more unnerving than that?

Nothing unsettles people more than brazen insanity, so if you walked around taking orders from a glove puppet, it wouldn’t be long before you found yourself wearing a straightjacket and staring at walls you couldn’t hurt yourself on. Walter is smart enough to claim his actions are a course of experimental therapy to craftily avoid being sectioned which is why everyone in the film takes the Beaver seriously rather than say, rolling around clasping their sides in fits of hysterics. It’s the key to the film working since everyone interacts with him and the Beaver with seriousness and sincerity. That in turn leads to the delusions to strengthen but what happens is really very engaging as this empty shell of a man is reborn, becoming a better father and a more charismatic and successful CEO directly because of a hand puppet. But as time progresses the Beaver takes a firmer grasp on the man as the film darkens in tone leading to a startlingly unsettling scene.

The film takes an idea made for comedy and re-spins it into a moving tragedy. Foster definitely captures just how crippling, agonizing and character-distorting depression can be. We learn that Walter really has little control over the furry incarnation now guiding him. It’s some warped creation of his subconscious which he has manifested as a way of distancing himself from well, himself. His beaver is outwardly personable and friendly to others but openly critical of Walter – a representation of the man’s inner turmoil and self-loathing. Far from being the novelty it first appears, The beaver is a metaphor for just how much a person suffering from depression loses of one’s self.

If you are one of the many people depressed in modern society there is probably something both comforting and alarming about watching Walter’s actions. Those feelings may well strengthen when you find out that the reason this film seems so realistic is because it is based on a real event. Yes, a man has actually entrusted his life to a hand puppet. It has to be Googled to be believed.

Gibson has rarely been better. This is a film similar to the Wrestler in that it offers a chance for its subject to vent cathartically on real life troubles. Gibson takes off the movie mask and bears his soul; wearing his troubles on his face and giving us a hint of the deep well of melancholy that exists privately. He brings the puppet to life – it isn’t long before you see this kiddie’s play thing as an entity entirely separate from the persona of Walter and intriguingly as the film progresses, through Gibson’s layered performance, we see a study of just how powerful a force depression can be and just how helpless to fight it someone can be suffering from depression.

The film is much more than a one man show. One of the subtleties of the screen-play is that all the characters seem hopelessly lost. Gibson’s long suffering wife – sensitively played by the film’s director Jodie Foster – clings to hope that the beaver will be the second chance he needs and her last chance to reclaim her husband. Anton Yelchin playing Walter’s eldest child gives an excellent performance as Walter’s bitter son, a teenager so troubled by his father’s mania that he had written down a list of traits he shared with his father in the hope of systematically eradicating them – and that’s even before he witnessed the horror of his Dad’s twisted puppet show.

It is one of the best films about mental illness you will ever see, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is in itself depressing, it is not. Foster adds a great deal of twisted but subtle humour, to lighten the mood: watching a particularly angry beaver throwing abuse at his sleeping subject is funny in the blackest of ways. Plus the Beaver creates some highs and some large lows but on the whole the film is strangely uplifting, as whatever disquieting psychological episode Walter has undergone to create the beaver it is the trigger point to start him down the bumpy road to salvation.

The Beaver manages to be simultaneously evocative, sincere and thought-provoking but also bizarrely entertaining and wryly amusing.

Mel Gibson’s master is a puppet in this compelling inventive, grimly comic portrayal of one man’s battle with depression and mental illness. Jodie Foster has just done for hand puppets what Darren Aronofsky did for wrestling.


About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

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