As Walter Black, a toy company executive sliding into a paralyzing world of depression, Gibson registers a degree of mental anguish that is shocking.
In his eyes there is so much hurt, fear and weary resignation that your first impression is that the actor’s recent public humiliations (drunken driving, anti-Semitic remarks, crazy violent telephone rants to the mother of his youngest child) have done a devastating number on the formerly cocky movie heartthrob.
Here’s another explanation: Maybe Gibson is just a really good actor.
Exhibit No. 1 is the astonishing dexterity with which he negotiates this film’s big conceit. Kyle Killen’s screenplay finds the suicidal Walter, estranged from his family, picking up a ratty old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver and talking through it.
The Beaver is chatty, confidant and optimistic. The people Walter encounters – family, employees – are expected to talk to the Beaver. Walter is a silent observer.
Watching this performance is really disturbing. When the Beaver is talking the tendency is to look at the puppet, ignoring the man who is animating him. Which, of course, is precisely what Walter hopes his friends and loved ones will do.
But of course our attention is invariably drawn to the charismatic Gibson...wait a minute...is this a metaphor for Mel hiding his true nature behind his many movie roles?
The Beaver not only revives Walter’s struggling toy company by inventing cleverly packaged wood-carving kits (anyone else have a problem with handing children sharp bladed tools?) but allows him to slip back into the good graces of his wife (Foster).
Less forgiving is Walter’s teenage son (Anton Yelchin, Chekhov on the most recent Star Trek), who somewhat irrationally blames his father for the mental illness that is tearing their family apart. Perhaps he fears that the condition may be congenital.
As a director Foster may have bitten off a bit too much. The Beaver has some funny moments and has an absurdist edge, yet it cannot be described as a comedy. Its vision is too dark and mournful, its bleakness too pervasive.
The result is a film perched precariously between extreme emotions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it allows The Beaver to lose its sense of immediacy. In the end it limps to the finish line, a valid effort thanks to Gibson, but ultimately a bit undernourished.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.