Director: Jodie Foster
Stars: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin
Plot: As a company executive’s depression drives him to the brink of suicide, he starts to use a hand puppet as his only way of communication.
Mental illness is a tricky subject to approach for filmmakers. Do you go with depression and try to make its approach interesting, or maybe choose schizophrenia and construct a story with a twisty plot and a big reveal at the end, that it was all in the imagination? Films such as A Beautiful Mind, The Notebook, Memento, Rainman, Shutter Island and even Black Swan are all commercially successful, so it’s no taboo yet the balance between sympathy for the sufferer and the entertainment factor need to be finely balanced.
The Beaver has no frills or spills – it is, on the surface, an unpretentious film about the pain of depression. Mel Gibson stars as Walter Black, a toy company CEO and family man, whose life is crumbling around him. His work is suffering and his wife Meredith (Foster) and son Porter (Yelchin) have forced him to leave home. Walter finds a beaver puppet in a garbage can which he puts on his hand during an unsuccessful suicide attempt and decides from then on to use it to communicate. He tries to make amends and rebuild his life, but the puppet is initially a barrier while people get used to it, but eventually sets him back on the road to some kind of normality. That is until the puppet apparently takes on a life of its own.
The Beaver is a rather strange, but very occasionally, moving film. To deal with the subject of mental illness in such an odd fashion is guaranteed to split its audience right down the middle. The direction of the tone throughout the film feels always unsure – is this supposed to be a sad melodrama about a man losing control and his mind or a tragi-comedy which is meant to be a charming, heartwarming tale of reconciliation and triumph over adversity? Unfortunately, this question is never answered as we are forced to cringe most of the time, yet occasionally see flashes of a good film in there somewhere.
For all of Mel Gibson’s recent personal trials and tribulations, this is supposed to represent a return to form, but there is little to suggest this is going to happen any time soon. He plays his character Walter in a ridiculous way, almost mocking his depression instead of portraying someone languishing in desperation who deserves our sympathy. Our perspective is supposedly mirrored in Meredith and Porter’s attitude towards Walter, but their lack of support in his mental state prompts us to do the same – our interest in his progress wanes all too quickly.
The Beaver has a synopsis that doesn’t help itself – a man uses a glove puppet to communicate turns out to be as silly as it sounds – but, with a much better execution and cast, this might just have been something worth watching.