The Beaver was shot in 2009, which might not seem so long ago. But in the life of Mel Gibson, that may as well have been a different century. It was some time before a new set of drunken tirades hit the news cycle, revealing a dangerous bitterness that’s been bubbling underneath a Hollywood figure working his way back into grace. It’s not hard to read a bit of that story in The Beaver, where Gibson is made to give voice to his worst impulses through a puppet. The film is unfocused but admirably brave in its portrayal of clinical depression, and the presence of Gibson gives it a strange sense of verisimilitude. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in the end, but it’s somewhat fascinating to watch.
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is depressed. He’s tried all sorts of treatments, but nothing is working. His relationship with his family has fallen apart. Fed up, his wife Meredith throws him out of the house. Walter decides to kill himself one night, but that night he finds a plush beaver puppet in a dumpster. The Beaver takes on a life of its own, Walter communicating exclusively through the puppet. He uses the Beaver’s aggressive persona to try and get his life together, fixing his relationship with his kids, his wife, and the people at work. The people around him play along, hoping that Walter will work through his problems. But soon enough, it becomes clear that the Beaver isn’t going anywhere.
The concept and the title might indicate a comedy, but the film treads on very dark territory. Though it’s kind of a twee premise, the film chases the story down some impressively harrowing paths, fully exploring the psyche of a man who’s let his life be taken over by an uncontrollable Id. This movie works best when it takes a long hard look at Walter’s relationship with himself, portraying the puppet as a means of expressing his own self-hatred, and the bitterness that he feels towards the people who’ve supported what he sees as a failed life. Combined with Foster’s earnest filmmaking, this makes for a couple of devastating moments.
But the film lacks focus. It gets caught up in subplots that take away from the strange sincerity of the main character’s arc. Scenes at his workplace feel pretty much extraneous and test the very limits of one’s suspension of disbelief. It’s one thing to have a family put up with a father’s eccentricities. It’s an entirely different thing for a public company to put up with a clearly insane CEO. A subplot concerning Walter’s eldest son has sweet moments, but it’s sometimes too precious. The character’s journey is inward, but the film is constantly going outward.
The film is anchored on Mel Gibson, who is made to act as two different characters in the very same frame. Gibson delivers an assured and committed performance, one that’s a little difficult to separate from his real life struggles. But regardless of what one might feel about the man, there’s no denying the strength of what he offers to the audience. It’s raw and it’s rough, and it’s pretty poignant in the end. Gibson has capable performers backing him up in Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence, but the film’s structure doesn’t quite give them the space to bloom.
The Beaver ends on a somewhat weak note, backing away from the darkness that gives the film its resonance. And as a whole, the film lacks momentum, the plot swerving from side to side as it tries to find a grasp of its themes. But in moments, The Beaver can be brutal, looking deep in the darkness of a modern man’s soul. There is painful, unflinching honesty at the core of it, delivered by an actor who can’t quite escape his own worst impulses. Honesty is rare in modern cinema, and those moments are worth holding on to.