The Beaver is one of the strangest and most inconsistent dramas in recent years. The core idea of having Mel Gibson play a middle-aged man who attempts to self manage his depression by communicating through a beaver hand puppet sounds absurd but it’s the element of this odd film that works best. From Max Mad to Lethal Weapon even to Hamlet, Gibson has had a long career of playing ‘crazy’, but his performance as Walter Black in The Beaver is one of restraint, suggesting a genuine understanding of how depression makes people completely shut down.
Directed by Jodie Foster, who also plays Walter’s wife Meredith, The Beaver is most successful when focused on the smaller details concerning the nature of depression, the effect Walter’s depression has on his family and its hereditary nature. In this regard, it’s a sensitive and non-judgemental film that neither romanticises Walter’s condition nor indulges it. Walter is going through hell for reasons beyond his control, but the film recognises that his suffering also affects those around him and that his family’s anger and pain is understandable. By assigning himself a ‘prescription puppet’ rather than seeking legitimate professional help, Walter finds a short-term solution that is certainly portrayed in the film as something amusing and fun, but not without ever fully removing the suggestion that something about this is not quite right.
It’s when the film moves into the extremities of Walter’s mood swings that it becomes unhinged. A frequently misunderstood aspect of depression is that sufferers always remain miserable and lethargic for the whole time, when in fact they tend to oscillate with moments of high energy and euphoria. In The Beaver the full extent of Walter’s upward swings manifest in a rather over-the-top Hollywood professional comeback narrative that takes too much focus away from the more tangible and interesting storyline about Walter’s relationship with Meredith and their children. While the film is savvy enough to ultimately not condone Walter’s maverick self diagnosis, its critique comes in the form of too literally representing the beaver puppet as Walter’s id, taking the film into the realm of hysterical pop-psychology, which for the most part it had avoided.
The other major failing is the secondary story about Walter’s son Porter (Anton Yelchin) who’s filled with anger and resentment towards his father as he begins to notice similar symptoms of depression within himself. What could have been a very strong component of this film is instead reduced to a rather trite and angst ridden American Beauty-light subplot involving Porter falling in love with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a popular girl with a secret passion for street art and her own repressed feelings of grief. Yelchin and Lawrence do their best to rise above the material, but their mawkish and contrived dialogue doesn’t give them a lot of room to move. Compared to the main story between Walter and Meredith, the Porter and Norah scenes feel indulgent and superficial.
There is a serious drama about depression, a coming-of-age teen indi film, a Hollywood triumph against the odds film and even a psychological thriller all mixed up in The Beaver. Overall, the mix doesn’t gel, however, the isolated elements that do work – namely Gibson’s performance – make The Beaver oddly compelling viewing. Somewhere in all this is a film of integrity and compassion, but you will have to work through the dross to find it.