May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 20, 2011
“Are Mel Gibson’s eyes really that blue, or does he wear contacts or something?” my little sister asked me after The Beaver. In the era of color-grading, you can never be quite sure– but Mel’s piercing blue eyes are a Hollywood relic.
“Piercing” isn’t really the word that I would use anymore, though. It’s too active. It implies focus, control– traits his audience can no longer credibly ascribe to him, in light of his volatile persona. But I’m speaking of his eyes, not his media image, and the eyes themselves seemed to have turned in on him. Once bright and commanding, they now seem a deeper blue; they lead us inward, downward, asking us to look for the soul that must be knocking around in there. It’s uncanny, because in The Beaver, Gibson plays a man as unraveled as he seems to be. And so when we look into Walter Black’s eyes, we cannot shake the feeling that we are also getting a fearfully intimate look into Gibson himself.
Mel Gibson isn’t the only actor here whose soul seems to bleed out of the edges of character– we also have Jodie Foster (who also directs the film). In the role of Meredith, Walter’s wife, Foster too seems to channel personal struggle. When Mel’s recorded phone call scandal broke during the film’s production, Jodie shocked the media with unwavering support for her troubled friend. The Beaver is a revealing glimpse into their relationship. Foster– who has always tastefully guarded her celebrity– is bright and conscientious here, her face taut with concern. Her character Meredith spends the film fighting for a spark out of her husband, who is stricken with clinical depression. But it seems that Foster, too, is fighting for the man. Where Gibson seems lost behind his eyes, Foster is fiercely present; his spirit crumples in a heap, while hers stretches outward, imploring. If you have any bent toward biographical criticism, it is easy to see The Beaver as a platform for a personal intervention.
The Beaver is a film about clinical depression. It is also a film with a whimsical lark of a premise. How well you tolerate the juxtaposition of these elements should become clear within the first few scenes. In them, an even-tempered, cockney-accented narrator describes Walter Black’s predicament: he is trapped in an all-consuming depression, and his family can no longer watch while he sleeps his life away. Despite the jaunty accordion music that accompanies this exposition, the film doesn’t pull punches about the realities of the disorder. In a few quick shots– Walter floating away on a pool lounger, or slumped in bed next to a leaky ceiling– we recognize that drifting despair, whether from buried firsthand memories or the helplessness of standing by.
The interplay of quirk and gravity ratchets up when Walter is banished to a motel. On the way, he stumbles upon a beaver puppet in a dumpster. This is soon forgotten to a night of kung-fu movies and feeble suicide attempts, where a liquor-slinging Gibson is funny but unnervingly at home. Enter the Beaver. A internal force made external under pressure, the Beaver is here to wake Walter up– literally, as in “Wake up, you sod.” Walter cannot escape the prison his mind has become, and so an alter ego punches its way into existence, in a strange testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. Yes, Walter is animating the puppet. There’s no magic or ventriloquism here; in the most basic sense, Walter is talking to himself.
But the film– and Gibson– make sure that we see the Beaver the same way Walter does: as a force for change, and a character with a will of his own. We only see Walter talk with the Beaver (rather than through him) in moments of crisis, but when it happens, it’s dynamite. Gibson is gripping as he navigates this initial confrontation, equally convincing in Walter’s whimpered “I’m sick” and in the Beaver’s good-natured growling. The Beaver is a last resort for a man that has been failed by therapy, self-help books, and any solution that asks him to merely “rearrange the furniture.”
“Forget about home improvement. You’ve got to blow up the whole bloody building.”
And so he does. Walter is immediately and entirely replaced by the Beaver, and for the rest of the film it’s hard to know whom to look at (a feeling we share with Walter’s family). Walter has cards at the ready that explain that he is “under the care of a prescription puppet, which is designed to help him distance himself from the negative aspects of his personality.” The device is just as useful for the film as it is for Walter– The Beaver, too, can hold its darkness at a playful distance.
This is the point at which The Beaver has a choice to become a feel-good movie or not. For a while, it seems that it must: Walter jogs with the beaver! The Beaver reconnects with his young son! The Beaver revitalizes his corporation! But Kyle Killen’s script, under Foster’s direction, lets a genuine human narrative breathe within its traditional structure. There is a subplot involving a budding romance between Walter’s high school son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), and Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the valedictorian. There are adorable graffiti shenanigans, yes, but there is also a keen sense that they live in the same world that allows Walter to completely lose himself– a fate Porter actively dreads. There is a hole in Porter’s wall, hidden under a map, that he has spent years beating in with his head. Despite its mainstream manner, The Beaver is not coy about the pain that lurks behind each life. Walter is not a freak. His Beaver is an eccentric response to a universal problem.
While watching The Beaver, my mind kept flitting back to 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl. The film starred Ryan Gosling as timid recluse Lars, who– in deadly earnest– takes a life-size doll as his girlfriend. His brother’s family– and eventually his whole town– decide to accommodate Lars while he works through his neurosis. Lars and the Real Girl and The Beaver each temper the serious subject of mental illness with a daffy-sounding premise and a light touch. But both films are uncommonly humane in their dealings with an ensemble of characters. There are no bad guys and no caricatures, only life. Some take it harder than others. So what do we do? When lonely Lars’s face lights up at his “real girl,” we feel a tension; we don’t know whether it melts our hearts or breaks them. When Meredith watches Walter– through the Beaver– making his son giggle, we can feel her cautious joy. In a world this fragmented, is it wrong to snatch happiness wherever we can find it, no matter how strange the circumstances? To look at it postmodernly, aren’t Lars and Walter simply writing their own narratives, following their bliss?
Though both films treat their heroes with mercy, they both hold that life must be grasped as it is. We may tell ourselves a different story for a time, but to fully live, we must come back to be with our loved ones. For Lars, this surfacing is slow and tender. Lars and the Real Girl has a sweet, if slightly sad, demeanor; The Beaver‘s world is tougher, and the film turns out to be startlingly devoted to the seriousness of its problems.
Though The Beaver had an art house release, it is not an art house film. It follows the familiar rhythms of a Hollywood family drama; its characters feel human, if not always nuanced; Jodie Foster’s direction is warm and serviceable. It’s a shame that it bombed at the box office, because The Beaver actually has the potential for wide commercial appeal; it’s not an esoteric indie picture, but an example of sturdy studio drama done right. And though it did not feel earth-shattering in its revelations, something about it would not leave me.
In the end, I think it must come back to the two performances at the center. There is a scene where Walter shares an anniversary dinner with Meredith, after she has begged him to come as himself and not the Beaver. As soon as Walter loses his outlet, he seems to sink deep down into himself. While Foster, as Meredith, is radiant with the hope of getting her old life back, Gibson spends the scene in agony. He can’t go back to rearrange the furniture. The scene is a perfect microcosm of the power of The Beaver: we understand both of them. How often have we felt trapped in identities we didn’t mean to create? Haven’t you wanted to “blow up the building” sometimes? And who has not wanted to shake a struggling friend back into sanity?
The hope at the end of The Beaver is nothing if not hard-won. What distinguishes the film from any other sentimental drama is, ultimately, its bravery. It manages to find redemption without compromising its honesty about the problem of pain. The characters of The Beaver find solace in the knowledge that no matter how far gone you feel, there is someone near you that will keep loving you.
And while it’s all conjecture, it’s hard to watch Jodie Foster shaking Mel Gibson by the shoulders without believing that she really, really means it. If The Beaver was, on some level, meant to be that shoulder-shaking writ large, she should rest knowing that she did all that she could do. As a director, she plunges him into dark waters and pulls him back into the light. He returns her effort with a brilliant, harrowing performance, and it is my personal hope that something that powerful doesn’t come without catharsis.
Lauren Wilford is an intern for Image journal and a film and music blogger. She studies aesthetics and narrative as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. You can find her at www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com.