Judge Clark Douglas' domineering hand puppet wrote the bulk of this review.
Our review of The Beaver, published August 23rd, 2011, is also available.
He's here to save Walter's life.
"I'm in charge here."
Facts of the Case
Walter Black (Mel Gibson, Edge of Darkness) was once a successful husband, father and businessman skyrocketing up the corporate ladder. However, after being named president of his company, Walter began a downward spiral into depression. Lately, he has spent most of his days sleeping and contemplating suicide. Things have gotten so bad that Walter's wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, Flightplan) had to insist that Walter move out. This doesn't exactly come as depressing news to Walter's son Porter (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek (2009)), who has grown rather distant from his father.
Just when Walter reaches rock bottom, he is saved from destruction by the creation of an alter ego: The Beaver. Walter begins wearing a beaver hand puppet at all times, and allowing The Beaver (who speaks in a thick London accent) to handle any situations which might be too stressful, upsetting or difficult for the sad-sack Walter. Given Walter's state of mind, this essentially means that The Beaver will be handling almost everything. With The Beaver's help, Walter soon regains his stature as a respected company President, rejuvenates his marriage and starts to repair his relationship with his kids. Is this a healthy delusion, or does The Beaver have a dark side?
I was one of the few who didn't much care for Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl, a well-made film which didn't work due to its Capra-esque romanticizing of a man's unhealthy mental state and its very unlikely portrait of an entire town working hard to maintain the man's delusions. As such, I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow when I first saw the trailer for The Beaver, which promised to be a similarly suspect tale of a man finding salvation via schizophrenia. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Jodie Foster's The Beaver (working from an ambitious screenplay by first-timer Kyle Killen) was actually a smart, sensitive skewering of such hokey sentiment.
The film's portrait of depression is similar to the depiction offered in Sandra Nettelbeck's deeply flawed Helen: a disease which strikes without warning and mercilessly eats away at a person's life on a personal, professional and mental level. The key difference between this film and that one is that The Beaver actually works as a film rather than as an audiovisual sermon. Even so, it does make the noteworthy and important suggestion that depression has no easy fixes and can't simply be suppressed or set aside. It has to be dealt with head-on, and getting rid of it is going to be one hell of a difficult process. There is no easy fix, but there is comfort to be found in knowing you're not alone and that you have the love and support of others.
It initially seems as if The Beaver is the key to Walter's salvation. After all, when he allows The Beaver to speak for him, Walter is more dynamic, more creative and more capable of dealing with life's exceptionally challenging situations. However, as The Beaver grows stronger, Walter becomes weaker. When Meredith eventually forces her husband to "be himself," Walter reveals himself as a man even shakier and more unstable than ever before. Walter is ready to leap off a cliff at a moment's notice, and his continued refusal to actually acknowledge his challenges (or at least challenge them directly; The Beaver comments on them mercilessly and at great length) simply compounds the problem. The film dives into thrillingly unexpected territory during its final act, in which Walter must confront The Beaver and wrestle for control of his own mind (leading to a cathartic scene boasting a potent metaphoric image).
Mel Gibson does some of his finest work in this film, as he successfully manages to pull off a task I'm not sure many actors could have handled. Rather than taking the obvious approach of cutting between Gibson and the beaver puppet, Foster elects to use two-shots for almost all of their interactions, so the audience can see Gibson's mouth moving as The Beaver barks orders at everyone. Gibson somehow pulls off the near-impossible task of delivering a brassy, blustery vocal performance (incidentally, The Beaver's voice sounds nearly identical to that of Ray Winstone) while simultaneously displaying the fearful, jittery, insecure Walter with his eyes. We actually witness Walter cowering in submission even as The Beaver spews one confident speech after another. Gibson's personal life has certainly been in shambles lately, but it's hard to deny that he's demonstrating genuinely affecting new shades as an actor in the midst of all his very public personal battles. The Beaver isn't the "please forgive me" apology film many suspected it would be; merely a savvily effective use of an actor whose personal life occasionally reflects that of Walter's in eerie ways.
The Beaver looks solid in hi-def, benefitting from a very sturdy 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. Flesh tones are warm and natural throughout and the colors are vibrant despite the somewhat low-key palette (which suitably reflects the "drama-with-occasional-light-shades" tone of the piece). Blacks are deep and inky much of the time, though black crush is an issue on occasion. Detail is strong throughout, despite the fact that the film isn't terribly interesting on a visual level (save for the manner in which Foster shoots Gibson and the puppet). Audio is strong throughout, though the film could have used a more effective score (the insistently upbeat accordion music gets old very quickly). Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, while a small handful of louder moments have an appropriate level of kick. Supplements include an engaging yet dry commentary with Foster, a 12-minute making-of featurette ("Everything is Going to be OK") and some deleted scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A sizable portion of the film's 91-minute running time is devoted to the relationship between Porter and an intelligent girl (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone) who attends his high school. It's intended as something of a mirror subplot which explores depression from a different (read: far less fantastical) angle, but it just isn't nearly as interesting. Lawrence and Yelchin (both of whom are very gifted) do strong work in their roles, but the subplot kind of drags the film's momentum down every time we spend a significant amount of time with it. The Gibson/Foster material is far more inventive, engaging and rewarding.
The Beaver is a small, quirky, modestly satisfying little drama that somehow grows stronger in retrospect. Though it has some rough spots (particularly those involving the younger characters), Gibson's striking performance and the film's refreshingly intelligent handling of its subject matter are what stick with you.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Summit Entertainment
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