Just for a moment, let’s put aside our memories of Mel Gibson’s haggard mug shots and raging, bigoted meltdowns. Instead, imagine him fresh off a new Lethal Weapon movie, or even a bloody religious epic that triumphed at the box office. His new movie, The Beaver, about a man in the midst of a psychotic break, would seem something of a hard sell — a divergence from the Gibson brand. Under the direction of his old friend and loyal supporter Jodie Foster, Gibson plays Walter Black, a man so crippled by mental illness that he believes a ratty, bucktoothed beaver hand puppet is both alive and in charge of his destiny. Neither slap-happy comedy nor aggressive action fare, The Beaver is a somber, sad domestic drama featuring an alcoholic in acute crisis.
Sound familiar, almost like a documentary? It’s hard to separate Gibson’s true-life story from what’s happening onscreen. In 10 years, when the actor’s ugly domestic disputes with ex-lover Oksana Grigorieva will have faded from our minds, The Beaver may just seem profoundly odd. But the way its themes dovetail with Gibson’s disgrace make it — peculiarly enough — the right film for him to have made in this very wrong moment.
Plucked from a Dumpster, the Beaver bullies depressed, uncommunicative Walter out of suicide and gives him the will to live and a Cockney accent. Puppet on hand, Walter returns to his wife Meredith (Foster), who’d tossed him out the day before. He pretends he’s participating in a radical new treatment program (“It’s very big in Sweden”) and begins to rebuild his life. The narrative sounds like a zany pitch from a parody of Hollywood filmmaking (like Robert Altman’s The Player). It sounds weird, and it is weird. We’re as skeptical as Walter’s son Porter (Anton Yelchin), a cynical high school senior who is appalled that his mother is giving Walter another chance (Porter has covered his bedroom walls with notes on his father’s behavior and character traits, a sort of to-not-do list).
But there’s a dignity in Kyle Killen’s screenplay, a quiet conviction that steadily woos us, just as Walter wins back the affections of his neglected younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and even convinces Meredith to let him back into her bed. (He and the Beaver pant in tandem after climax, a bit of creepy humor that would send most of us sprinting toward the spare room; Meredith merely turns away politely.) Walter is the CEO of a toy company he’s never been particularly interested in, so his employees are dumbstruck when he shows up in a natty suit — furry puppet held aloft — ready to shake up the business. The Beaver inspires a Tickle-Me-Elmo-size success with a new woodcutting kit for kids, catapulting Walter onto magazine covers and TV programs, where the Beaver continues to speak for him. It doesn’t matter that the man is a freak show as long as he’s making money hand over fist — a meta-irony that Foster plays for broad laughs in a montage (best celebrity cameo: NPR’s Terry Gross). Eventually the media blitz devolves into something sadder as we see Walter cycle through his 15 minutes of eccentric fame, ceding more and more of himself to the Beaver.
The puppet is quick-witted and charming but also consistently menacing — which reminds us, of course, of Gibson the very bad boyfriend and tabloid star. After tapes leaked of Gibson’s malice-soaked conversations with Grigorieva, distributors pushed The Beaver‘s release date from the fall of 2010 to the following March and then May, presumably in the belief that the moviegoing public needed some time off from Gibson. We would need yet more time off to get a clean reading of The Beaver. But even if Walter’s desperation and downward spiral resonate more because of Gibson’s decline — his ravaged features are constant evidence of his tumultuous life — the actor deserves credit for the vulnerability and poignancy of his performance, which recalls his work in 1993′s The Man Without a Face and even 1979′s Tim, in which he plays a developmentally disabled laborer.
Gibson doesn’t share much screen time with Yelchin, but the young actor’s performance is crucial to the movie. Porter is an outsider who longs to be free of his childhood, particularly his father; he’s funding his escape by writing papers for classmates at a tidy profit. While his burgeoning relationship with a lush cheerleader (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) is predictable — she too has a secret pain — we are grateful for all the time we spend with the compelling Porter. His struggle to understand and accept his father’s limitations echoes our own: he gives us a reason not to write Walter off as a hopeless loon. Yelchin is intensely present in the role, in contrast with Foster, whose portrayal of Meredith has the sense of an afterthought — as if she were too busy, under her director’s hat, worrying about other people’s performances to put much thought into her own.
But Foster merits praise for putting her energy into a movie about mental illness that goes beyond the slickness of As Good as It Gets, in which a happy ending can be spun from a patient’s mere promise to take his medication. There is one element of The Beaver that does reflect a Hollywood sensibility: Walter’s breakdown never threatens the family financially. The narrative would have more tension if they didn’t appear so comfortably padded in a Nancy Meyers–like milieu. (Meyers directed Gibson in 2000′s What Women Want, a feel-good movie that now seems very far in his past.) But despite that and the ludicrousness of the puppet prop, The Beaver is serious about portraying mental illness. And whatever your opinion about Gibson the man, so is Gibson the actor.