SXSW FILM 2011
By Linc Leifeste | May 6, 2011
Director: Jodie Foster
Writer: Kyle Killen
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Sure this Henry David Thoreau quote probably gets thrown around too much but if so, only because it rings so true. And it was those words that kept going through my head while viewing Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, a movie that masterfully shines a spotlight on the horrific results of years of quiet desperation.
Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is “hopelessly depressed.” That crushing depression has led him to run his family toy business into the ground and his 20-year marriage to his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) is careening along just behind. His older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is filled with angst towards his father and his young son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is becoming isolated and bullied at school due to his father’s diminished presence. Despite trying a variety of medications, therapies, self-help books, and everything else that American medicine and the pop-therapy industry has contrived, Walter is deeper in the grips of his depression than ever and sleep seems to be the only source of relief from his daily life. Realizing that change is not imminent, and knowing that a husband and father sleep-walking through life is killing an already wounded family, Meredith finally gives Walter the heave-ho.
Walter forlorlny drives away with a few of his possessions packed in the trunk of his car. It’s when he finds a beaver hand-puppet in a liquor store dumpster that his life begins to take a radical turn. After rescuing the puppet he heads off to a hotel room to drink himself into a state of oblivion. It’s following a botched suicide attempt that Walter discovers that the Beaver talks and in the process discovers an unorthodox means of turning his life around.
Confronted with Walter’s sudden reappearance and learning that he now only communicates via The Beaver on his hand (with a cockney accent that sounds amazingly like Michael Caine), Meredith is understandably skeptical but is eventually won over by the explanation that this is a new therapy prescribed by his doctor and even more so by seeing young Henry’s eyes light up when interacting with his newly invigorated father (and what little kid doesn’t love a talking beaver hand-puppet?). Of course Porter is not as easily impressed, instead berating his mom for her decision to take Walter back so quickly.
Not only does the Beaver allow Walter to return to a more dynamic family life but his newfound vitality also leads to a reinvention of his manager persona at work. And soon it seems he’s on top of the world. But its only a matter of time before Meredith is ready for the Beaver to disappear and for Walter to return. Only it turns out that the Beaver isn’t going anywhere without a struggle, leading to one of the strangest cinematic fight scenes I’ve seen in a while and ultimately to a powerful and cringe-inducing encounter with a large power tool.
Running parallel to Walter’s story in the film is that of his intelligent but troubled son, Porter, who is filled with such loathing for his father that much of his energy is expended in an effort to curb any behavioral similarities he can find. At school, he is making money by writing papers for fellow students with lesser abilities which leads to his being approached by class valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence in another strong performance) who wants Porter to write her commencement speech as she’s been unable to find the words to communicate what she needs to say. Much like Walter’s Beaver, Porter serves as the mouthpiece for Norah’s repressed feelings. Turning in possibly the strongest performance of the film, Yelchin plays Porter with restrained simmering intensity. The scenes of him habitually banging his head against the wall (literally) of his room until eventually he actually breaks through into the quiet night air are visually striking. And the sadness that is conveyed when his father eventually finds the hidden hole and in a mirroring shot also sticks his head through the hole into the night air is tangible. Ties of blood are strong and it’s impossible to fully escape those who brought us into the world. The scenes between father and son are incredibly moving, especially for anyone who has ever had a strong father-son relationship or even a contentious relationship that still has life in it.
Mel Gibson gives arguably the strongest performance of his career as the world-weary and despondent Walter. His facial muscles sag, his shoulders slump, barely managing shuffle under the weight of a world that’s leaving him behind. I’ve always felt Gibson’s eyes have communicated a depth of sadness (and at times insanity) and in this role those qualities are only magnified. With his recent troubles and their endless coverage in our celebrity-obsessed tabloid culture, it’s impossible to avoid wondering if this is method acting or simply a glimpse of the real man. And while not realistic to think that all his recent personal struggles won’t impact the reception of this film and his role in it I hope they can be judged on their own merits.
While Jodie Foster is reliably solid as Meredith I believe it’s in her role as director that she truly shines. While Kyle Killen’s script was one of the most in-demand scripts in Hollywood many thought it would prove unfilm-able, but Foster shows that not to be the case. Built on an unbelievable premise, Foster has made a film that’s incredibly believable in it’s restrained emotional presentation. While I’m sure many will be put off by the absurdist elements of the film and some will feel there is too much pull between the comedic and darkly dramatic moments, I feel it worked perfectly. While there are some incredibly hilarious scenes (imagine a three-way sex scene between Foster, Gibson and the Beaver and you’ll have an idea) I never felt the film flirted too strongly with being a comedy. And the absurdist elements ingeniously manage to present the dramatic arc in a fresh new light. Suicidal depression may garner a few more laughs when a beaver hand-puppet is involved but in the end it only appears all the more alarming.
Ultimately, I think the real power of the film lies in it’s taking a long hard look at depression via the absurdist lens of a beaver hand-puppet only to show that Walter Black is not actually a freak. He’s not even all that out of the ordinary. There are hints of the roots of his depression (a poor relationship with his father, who committed suicide) but only hints. Ultimately, what has pushed him so far into the abyss is the lifetime of hiding his pain, his insecurities, his shortcomings and doubts; a lifetime of wearing the mask that is demanded of nearly all of us, of pretending to be contented in a life that he never intended. A lifetime of playing the roles that life has assigned to him has left him a stranger in his own skin and his desperation has finally found a voice. It just happens to have a Cockney accent and come from a furry little beaver.