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David Thomson on Films: ‘The Beaver’

Why Mel Gibson's new movie is important for American cinema.

There are things wrong with The Beaver, starting with the gamble of giving that title to a Mel Gibson picture in the moment of his lowest public esteem. The considerable courage in making his character a profound depressive is not adequately explained—in life, depressives are often suffering because they don’t understand their problem, but, in drama, it’s hard to offer just a numb stare to such questions. We expect explanation, where depression sees only chaos. In addition, as this story trails away it tries to slip a facile feel-good disguise over its persuasive claim that life is shit. So the balance of comedy and darkness is uneasy, and it cheats at the close. Never mind, though—The Beaver is a provocative mainstream picture in an age when that type of entertainment is so rarely attempted.

Walter is a husband and the father of two boys. He is also the CEO of a substantial toy-making company. But there is no fun in his life, and the despair has dragged down his company, his sons (about 18 and eight), and his wife, Meredith, who is played by Jodie Foster, the director of the film. At which point, many potential audience-members may feel like asking, are we really expected to feel compassion for a character played by Mel Gibson? If you are prepared to risk the film and pay for a ticket, your anxiety will alter its shape quite rapidly. It’s not just that Gibson acts very well as Walter. I fear our dilemma is a lot grimmer: for the actor’s face and presence, and Walter’s alcoholism, feel personal and even confessional. I am not writing to defend Gibson against the charges he has exposed himself to. But I defy any viewer to watch this film without seeing the man in a changed light.

Then, you have to wonder why depression is seldom treated in our movies? The condition is so widespread in this greatest of countries that it is hard to buy time with a shrink, and harder still to keep faith with the stamina of a practitioner who may see twelve patients in a day. Well, of course, the explanation comes back: 100 years or so of American pictures has labored (and lied) to keep us cheerful. That’s why so many of our movies are now barely distinguishable from advertisements. But, in that 100 years, the morale (and the morality?) of the nation, the government, our educational system, our media, and ourselves as individuals have deteriorated. The Beaver is nowhere good enough or ambitious enough to take on this large package of troubles. Still, it has a hero trapped in the agony of his own mind and spreading damage. What’s more, the film is often very funny.

How funny? Well, Walter and his wife are nearly estranged when the film begins—and depression can kill affection because, if you feel helplessly unlovable, you may deter dear ones from loving you. But Walter finds a strange drug more effective than all the meds he has tried. The rescuing agent is the beaver, a discarded glove puppet. He puts it on his left arm and starts to talk through its scruffy, furry head (it’s Gibson talking, but sounding a bit Michael Cainish). A sort of liberation occurs, though it is as much Jekyll finding Hyde as a bipolar victim getting the right pharmaceuticals. Husband and wife are close to reconciled. They return to bed together, but the beaver comes too (and pants after coming)—and the look on Jodie Foster’s face in this ménage-a-trois is a sublime stroke of comedy.

It’s nothing new to say Foster is a fine actress and a national heroine (though never running for that office). But it is not often spelled out how rare it is for an American movie actress to bypass ingratiating sexual appeal. Foster has not striven to be glamorous or seductive, but she is beautiful and smart, and the reviews claiming she took a thankless role in The Beaver are simply not attuned to the fine-grained moments she can convey. Better still, in her intermittent career as a director, this is the best work she has done.

What lifts The Beaver beyond Walter’s black hole and the threat of undue sentimentality is the sub-plot, or co-plot. For Walter’s older son (Anton Yelchin) has his own beaver device, no matter that he despises his Dad’s gloom. He writes papers for other kids in high school; he frees himself in taking on these other voices. Of course, this is a version of what Walter is doing. The link is not hammered home in Kyle Killen’s deft script. But it is there. The son’s chief client is the valedictorian at their high school, a senior who does not know what to say at graduation and cannot deal with her brother’s suicide. This girl is uncovered gradually by Jennifer Lawrence (last seen as the lead in Winter’s Bone, and not easily recognized here). It’s a treat to see her working with Foster, who surely knows what it is to be gold at an early age.

I won’t spoil the end of the story—or try to forgive how the film has spoiled itself. There are weird gaps in the narrative: the way Walter’s company is transformed and his becoming a celebrity stretch credulity. But the dark mood returns and is handled best in the developing but troubled romance between the high-school seniors.

The Beaver may fail at the box office, just because of its double dare—the depression and the bleakness in Mel Gibson’s eyes. But, if this country is going to get past the fantasy of being the best in the world and come to be a halfway decent and honest place to live, it needs pictures as ready as this one to take on distressing but ordinary states of human nature. For all too many Americans—not all of them clinically identified or under treatment—life is shit. Not ice cream. Gibson, Foster, Killen, and the cast have given us a film we never thought of asking for. Don’t let its faults put you off.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.

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