Mel Gibson isn’t just a train wreck in his personal life, he also plays one in movies. Mel crashed from the lofty heights of near-sainthood after “The Passion of the Christ” to Hollywood pariah after a series of scandals involving racial screeds and domestic abuse. Well, they always say, “write what you know.” Though Gibson didn’t write “The Beaver,” he certainly acts what he knows in this profound, poignant, and – frankly — odd movie directed by Jodie Foster.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a husband, father, and businessman so crippled by depression that he cannot leave his bed. When we meet him, a long series of attempts to heal has failed. He has gone to counseling, to the doctor, to the self-help section of the bookstore. He has tried medication, exercise, alcohol, everything.
Walter’s life deteriorates around him as he lays in bed. The toy company he inherited from his father withers. Teen son Porter (Anton Yelchin) knows that mental illness travels in families. Terrified of becoming like his father, he obsessively chronicles every similarity between himself and his old man, down to biting his lip in times of stress. Little Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) misses his dad very much. He tries, with growing success, to become invisible. Even his own mother (Jodie Foster) misses him when she comes to pick him up in the car after school.
As even his suicide attempt fails, Walter is rescued by the strangest of saviors. A stuffed beaver puppet badgers him (pardon the pun) into not giving up. He becomes Walter’s constant companion and apologist. He is not Walter speaking, exactly. He is his own person, equal parts therapist, coach, and spokesman. To Walter, The Beaver is real. To the rest of the world, The Beaver is a puppet on Walter’s hand. They can see Walter’s lips moving, after all.
Of course, as with more conventional pathologies, the thing that starts as a crutch eventually becomes a handicap, a prison, a new form of enslavement. The Beaver, it turns out, is more sinister than his fuzzy little face would suggest.
There’s a reason Gibson spent decades on the top of Hollywood’s A-List. The man can fill up a screen. In this movie, he’s playing two roles at once. He voices The Beaver, who is often angry to the point of belligerence, but he also plays tragic Walter. So, as Gibson’s lips move and the furious words of The Beaver tumble out, Walter’s face melts in a puddle of sorrow and humiliation.
Gibson may just be nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the same role.
The rest of the cast keeps up with him. Foster’s overstressed yet tough Meredith holds the family, and the movie, together. Yelchin, as Porter the son, subtly mimics Gibson so well and expresses such a degree of quiet panic, that he would steal the show in any other movie. His love interest Norah, played by rising star Jennifer Lawrence, is crazy in a completely different way. They play off each other very well.
The movie is rated PG-13, but not intended for children. The subject matter is too dark. Sex is implied but not graphically shown. It’s creepy when it happens as The Beaver never leaves Walter’s hand. At the climax of the film, there is a moment of off-camera violence which is shocking in a film devoid of violence.
The film is mystical, similar in some ways to Gibson’s other work. It rejects linear thinking as soundly as it rejects medication, therapy, self-help, and motivational speakers. They – and labels like “depression”- are simply not adequate to address what is wrong with Walter. The only help lies outside of rational thinking.
Gibson, with his conservative Catholic roots and agonizingly bad behavior, is a man who understands the concept of damnation. Walter, trapped by The Beaver, becomes a creative and unorthodox image of damnation. He is in Hell and only an extremely costly act will free him and start him on the road to recovery.
Perhaps the same could be said for Mel Gibson as well.
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