Say what you will about Mel Gibson’s personal failings (and a lot could be said), but there’s a reason he’s still a movie star. He has an innate sense of when to put it all out there, when to hold back and how to use his body and voice to make us forget who we’re watching. This same power is the driving force of Jodie Foster’s The Beaver.
A darkly comic indie drama, Foster’s film sets Gibson free. A good thing, too, because without the movie’s quirky premise, it would just be another navel-gazing indie flick. Those movies have their fine points, but they belong to a strain of cinema that’s content to just sit at home and stare out the window. The Beaver could have been the same—in fact, its opening shot of Gibson dozing in his pool feels like it was lifted straight from Greenberg—but it takes all that internal struggle and externalizes it. The result is a movie that feels surprising and dynamic, even as it hits all the expected plot points.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a family man and the CEO of his deceased father’s floundering toy company. For two years, he’s been hopelessly depressed. No matter what he tries to cure himself with—whether it's therapy, medication or flogging himself with a leather belt in the mornings—the only thing that makes him feel better is sleep. And Walter does lots and lots of sleeping.
All that changes when he finds the Beaver resting atop a pile of garbage in a liquor store’s dumpster. Straddling a thin line between cute and creepy, the puppet is just what Walter needs, and soon he’s wearing it on his hand 24-7, talking through it in a rough, cockney accent that at first frightens and then charms his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), and their youngest son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). The only person he’s not fooling is Porter (Anton Yelchin), his teenage son who makes good money writing papers for his classmates and is falling in love with his class’ valedictorian, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence).
But if the movie were just about a depressed man finding happiness again, there wouldn’t be much to it. Thankfully, screenwriter Kyle Killen and director Foster are willing to go in a darker direction, showing us that, while the Beaver may have had a good effect on Walter initially, his brand of wipe-the-slate-clean self-help is more destructive than anything else. The Beaver, in spite of its chipper voice and toothy grin, becomes a menace to Walter and the rest of his family.
The Beaver also toys with a theme about strained relationships between fathers and sons, and the difficulty of being "Dad" when your only example didn’t do a very good job. Thankfully, though, the filmmakers don’t put all their cards on the table. The relationship between Walter and his father is largely unexplained, but we can only assume it’s the primary cause behind his two-year ordeal.
Where the movie stumbles is in those moments when the camera leaves Gibson for the ancillary romance plot starring Yelchin and Lawrence. While it adds to The Beaver’s overall themes, it’s too by-the-numbers to be anything more than diverting. Yelchin has talent, that much is obvious, but his character spends so much time reacting to Gibson he’s doesn’t have any time left to build a character who is interesting in his own right. And as for Lawrence, Norah feels like a thankless role, especially coming off her success in Winter’s Bone. It’s a part that could’ve been played by any talented starlet.
It’s true, The Beaver’s love-cures-all message is trite and the plot is overly familiar in places, but as a whole, it works incredibly well. Thoughtful, humorous and well-acted by Gibson, it may not go down in history as anything special, but it has a lot going for it.
Andrew Welch has written for RELEVANT and Books & Culture, and is beginning a master's in film criticism this fall.