Mel Gibson belatedly re-unites with Maverick co-star Jodie Foster for a deeply moving and quietly topical drama.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a hopelessly depressed businessman, who is slowly driving his family over the edge. As the opening narration tells us of his physical and emotional slump, “It’s as if he’s died, but just forgot to take his body with him. So now mostly he just sleeps”. His wife Meredith (Foster) finally throws Walter out, but, just as he is about to commit suicide, he is saved by the intervention of a hand puppet. Walter takes to communicating only thru this ‘prescription puppet’ so that people must literally talk to the hand. His younger son loves this new persona, while Meredith accepts it because Walter is rejuvenated by this odd psychiatric treatment. His company’s fortunes revive too as Walter’s idea for a children’s carpentry set, Mr Beaver’s Woodchopper Kit, becomes an unexpected success. But then requests for interviews come in and Walter appears on TV, or rather The Beaver does, espousing his peculiar brand of philosophy while dismissing Walter as a mere shell of a man…
I’d have thought if anyone would attempt resuscitating Gibson’s career it’d be Robert Downey Jr repaying past favours, instead it’s almost the last person you’d expect – Jodie Foster, directing only her third film. She draws from Gibson a bravura performance that is also oddly humble. He has barely any dialogue as Walter, and after a while you hardly look at his face when he talks but instead find your gaze drawn to the perfectly synchronised gurning of his cockney hand-puppet. Gibson’s vocal performance as The Beaver is spectacular, as not only can he leap from chirpy to inspirational to menacing within a few lines, but he is also obviously replicating the accent of his recent co-star Ray Winstone to produce a well ’ard no-nonsense persona you instantly buy as capable of bullying Walter off a hotel balcony ledge and back into control of his life. The Beaver though is not a comedy; indeed it features the nastiest piece of off-screen self-harm since The Prestige.
The film becomes steadily more sinister in order to depict the toll that depression, bereavement, and the salacious publicising of such private torments, take on people. Walter’s teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is obsessively fearful of becoming like his father, and so has compiled a list of 49 ways in which he is like him, each one of which he aims to eliminate thru concerted effort. Porter easily writes classmate’s assignments for money, as he has no personality to get in the way of mimicking their styles, because he has emptied himself out from fear of what he may be genetically destined to become. Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his father’s traits which will become his traits. Foster’s quietly devastating performance includes a moment where the fear in her eyes is tangible when she stands with her young blonde son, looking at her dark-haired son lying depressed on a sofa, just like her dark-haired husband…
Observing all this chaos is Porter’s superficially well-adjusted classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). “Everyone loves a train wreck, just so long as it’s not us”, says The Beaver, and Lawrence skilfully portrays the shift in Norah’s attitude from contempt at the self-loathing Porter and his crazy father to a compassionate sympathy. Porter’s drafting of her valedictorian speech becomes a futile exercise because his anguish unleashes her suppressed despair over her brother’s death – “Pain is in our DNA, tragedy is our inheritance. Things will not be okay, but you won’t be alone.” Oddly enough that subdued epiphany does double service. The circus that engulfs Walter eerily parallels the blanket media coverage given to Charlie Sheen’s implosion, but you know when things turn tragic the media will melt away and estranged family will be left to pick up the pieces. Perhaps it’s time our popular culture switched from cruelty to compassion, and exploiting mental illness to understanding it.
It took the comedic maguffin of The Beaver to get a film about depression onto our screens, but ignore the misdirection; this is worth watching.