Review: “The Beaver” Brings Mel Back From the Brink

"The Beaver" originally opened in limited release on May 6, but will be going into more cities beginning May 20.

“The Beaver” is a film whose premise is even more bizarre than the scandals and controversies that have surrounded star Mel Gibson for the past several years.

In it, Gibson plays Walter Black, a toy company CEO whose struggles with depression have left him bedridden for two years, whereupon his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directed the film), finally kicks him out. He heads for a hotel, but not before stopping at a liquor store, where he comes upon a beaver hand puppet, which he throws in his trunk along with his booze.After a night of blackout drinking, Walter is awakened by the angry, British-accent growl of The Beaver, the hand puppet, who hits him with some tough love.

Gibson gives arguably the best performances of his career in “The Beaver,” one that was surely fueled in part by the personal problems that have far overshadowed his talents for the past several years. The rage in The Beaver’s voice is matched only by the desperation in Walter’s face—they are a man and a puppet teetering on the brink. It’s the kind of courageous turn that would be accompanied by Oscar buzz if it were anybody but Gibson.

“You’ve got to forget about home improvements—you’ve got to blow up the whole building!” demands The Beaver.

Walter cedes control of his life to The Beaver, handing everyone—wife, kids, employees—a card explaining, "Hello. This person is under the care of a prescription puppet. Please, treat him as you normally would, but address yourself to the puppet." 

Despite the absurdity of it all, Walter soon finds himself inching his way back into the lives of his wife and kids, as well as his company.

Foster repeatedly shoots The Beaver in such a way as to isolate him in the frame, while still having it feel natural. Between her camerawork and Gibson’s puppetry, actor and director conspire to effectively create space between Walter and The Beaver. 

One person’s who’s having none of The Beaver is Walter’s son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who feverishly catalogs every facet of himself that he recognizes as being from his father. One wall of his bedroom is covered with post-its, one for each trait: “Hates his father who hates his father.” But what starts out as a moving subplot goes a bit off the rails, as Potter falls for the head of the cheerleading team, played by Jennifer Lawrence--the romance is a bit meldramtic and feels contrived.

Sreenwriter Kyle Killen launches an all-out assault on the tragically simplistic fashion with which people try to fix themselves—drum circles, floggings, books, pills—in an effort to avoid doing the real work of healing. Watching a man with Gibson’s past claw his way across this landscape makes everything even heavier.

There was a lot of talk last summer about how Gibson’s most recent personal troubles had doomed this film that had been so hotly anticipated. But that was nonsense—a film has to be heroically wretched to never see the light of day once it’s done, which this film is most definitely not. However, Gibson’s stain will likely keep “The Beaver” from getting the kind of audience it and his work deserve.

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