The Beaver

August 30, 2011

Issue Films tend to be the most problematic projects that Hollywood produces on a regular basis.  There is a tendency to treat serious subjects in a po-faced, serious way that is often reductive and, more often than not, insulting.  The most obvious recent example is the Best Picture winning, critically loathed Crash, which treats race in America in such an insulting, ham-fisted way that only a self-congratulatory cabal of morons could pat themselves on the back for being so damn sensitive.  There’s also the issue of Hollywood having to be Hollywood.  A serious subject can give weight to a film that doesn’t deserve it, because the audience will be guilted into thinking it is something they are supposed to like, but it can’t be too alienating that it just flat out depresses people.  So you get a po-faced representation of a real problem, but you must distract the messiness because it’s still a movie and people don’t want to leave thinking there are Real Problems that are too complicated to be easily dealt with.  This all means awkwardly shoehorning the serious subject into a classical, comforting formula, often leading to a series of offensively dull clichés peppering a structure too rigid to allow a serious exploration of whatever serious subject they want to explore/exploit.  Jode Foster’s The Beaver falls into an awful lot of these traps.  In fact, it falls into so many I wouldn’t blame anyone for hating it. 

Despite its many problems, however, The Beaver works, thanks to a fantastic central performance and a willingness to go places you might not expect in this type of film.  From the trailers, it looks as though it’s about a depressed man who manages to improve himself by talking through a Beaver puppet he finds.  It is about that, for sure, but it goes further than the trailers indicate.  The central performance is from Mel Gibson, who plays Walter Black, a chronically depressed father and toy-company CEO who has been kicked out of the house by his long-suffering wife (Jodie Foster) and is on the verge of suicide before finding the beaver puppet.  He very quickly starts getting all the shattered aspects of his life back together except for his son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), who wants to be anyone but his father and is incredibly paranoid that he might be moving in that direction anyway.  Porter is also caught in a subplot with a valedictorian/cheerleader played by Jennifer Lawrence, but the less said about it the better.

I said it was “Jodie Foster’s” film, but really I think as much of the authorship belongs to writer Kyle Killen, an up and coming star in the TV world who has yet to have any real success (he is responsible for the best broadcast network pilot of last season, Lone Star, which was cancelled after two episodes).  Foster’s direction is largely anonymous from a visual perspective, except when it comes to the depictions of Gibson alone with the beaver, which do a great job of depicting separate personalities without ever letting the audience forget that they are the same person.  This inner-conflict made outwardly visual gives a good sense of the central question running throughout the film:  how much is this a therapy and how much is it a pure psychotic break?  Gibson’s Walter uses the beaver as a way to distance himself from himself, and appropriately the film always views him from a distance.  There is a crucial understanding of depression here.  His back-story is purposely vague.  All we know is that his father was depressed and probably committed suicide, but there doesn’t seem to be a key event in Walter’s life that has led to this state.  There is no simplistic explanation for his disease from which the story can give resolution.  Depression just is, and Killen and Foster’s understanding of this is what gives the film the emotional heft to lift it above a po-faced, sentimental exercise.  It’s melodrama, to be sure, and there are some turns in the plot that greatly stretch credulity, but the climactic final low-point is both shocking and completely logical.

Mel Gibson is the lynchpin that holds it all together, and his performance is exceptional.  This was meant to be his comeback film, and it was finished a few years ago, but presumably his continued public breakdowns and (deserved) vilification by the media made it a headache for the studio.  It’s easy to read into many of the scenes as a meta-commentary on Gibson himself, but it’s a credit to his performance that it never really crossed my mind while watching it.  I have no doubt that his issues informed his acting, but it never crosses over into an apologetic pity party.  Mel Gibson is this film, but it is not a film about Mel Gibson.  His moments of self-hatred, despair, and hopelessness are utterly convincing, and he manages to sell the Beaver-puppet aspect to such an extent that the absurdity isn’t nearly as distractingly comic as it could have been (or, indeed, as it might have intended to be).

Despite all that, the problems remain.  Everything involving Porter and his girlfriend-to-be is bog-standard Hollywood claptrap.  The business plot feels (and, in fairness, is treated as) totally perfunctory.  There are also a few turns in the plot that are just a little too over-the-top to really gel with the better aspects of Walter’s arc, and the sentimental ending is only half-earned.  Still, the central performance by Gibson and the occasional gutsiness of the script serve to make the melodrama palatable, and it largely avoids becoming a movie-of-the-week or an after-school special.  There are no easy answers when it comes to depression.  The necessary psychological breakthrough is so violently self-destructive that there is a significant amount of doubt that any peace found at the end will hold.  For all its faults and schmaltz, The Beaver understands its core issue much better than your average Issue Film, and while it isn’t a great film by any standard, it is effective.


2 Responses to “The Beaver”

  1. sumiremei Says:

    I’d be really interested to hear your take on FX’s Wilfred (now airing on BBC Three in the UK) as it sounds as though there’s a lot of similarities in the portrayal of depression (via the external manifestation or embodiment of a mental schism)

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      Wilfred takes the opposite approach to depression. The Beaver is about distance, in a lot of ways. Wilfred is presented from the perspective of Ryan, so we’re always in his head and understanding things the way he does. Gibson’s Walter is viewed from the outside. We see his behaviour and have to guess at what’s going on. They’re also different in that Wilfred takes a subtle, black comedy approach whereas The Beaver is pure melodrama. Interestingly, though, I get the impression from the some of the scenes that there was an intention to make it a black comedy, but Foster either couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with that aspect all.

      One thing I liked about The Beaver was this undercurrent that Walter’s real depression is about emptiness. It’s not even that he can’t turn his life around, it’s that he genuinely doesn’t seem to want to. It’s as though he’s been struck by a lack of desire. He creates The Beaver perhaps not to get him in gear to change his life, but to create a persona that actually wants to. From what we’ve seen of Ryan, Wilfred feels like a construction to get him to move forward in some way, even if it is potentially damaging. I should add that both Wilfred and the Beaver have hints and auras of malevolence about them, that the sickness might also be in the cure.

      I like Wilfred alright. I don’t think it all works, and I’m interested to see where it’s going. It really has the great disadvantage of coming on right before “Louie”, the most audacious, funny, heartbreaking and heartfelt comedy (possibly TV show, full stop) on air right now. That means I probably don’t give Wilfred as fair a shake as I should, because when I watch it I’m mostly just waiting for “Louie” to come on.

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