By Caryn James | James on Screens May 5, 2011 at 1:00AM
We know so much about the private lives of public figures that it’s harder than ever for actors to vanish into roles. Does anyone think Mr. and Mrs. Smith would play as well without the real-life Brad/Angelina subtext? So there’s no use pretending here: the Mel Gibson Issue overshadows The Beaver, which is too bad, because he gives a powerful, touching performance in Jodie Foster’s finely shaped, offbeat film.
Gibson is both the great artistic strength and a huge marketing liability in this drama about a suicidally depressed businessman who survives by speaking through a hand puppet. His character, Walter Black, has a wife, Meredith, (played by Foster) two sons and a house with, really, a white picket fence. What he doesn’t have any more is a family life after the out-of-patience Meredith has tossed him out, or much sanity. He finds a beaver puppet in a dumpster and begins speaking through it.
One of the wonders of this delicately balanced film is that, despite its unbelievable premise, we accept that Walter convinces people to address the Cockney-accented puppet instead of him. From the family to the employees at the struggling toy-manufacturing company he inherited, everyone believes the puppet is, as he says, a way of distancing himself “from the negative aspects of his personality.”
None of this would work without Gibson, who is craggy-faced and sadder than he has ever seemed on screen. At the start he conveys the depth of Walter’s desperation. As the Beaver helps him get on with his life, we understand that he’s still emotionally sick, even though business picks up so much he lands on The Daily Show and Today, with cameos from Jon Stewart and Matt Lauer. The easy thing would have been for Gibson to pull some Lethal Weapon mania out of his bag of tricks, but Walter is a different person, conveyed in complicated layers – vulnerable, witty, self-destructive, charming. We can see his crash coming before he does, which make him that much more heartbreaking.
Foster is good enough as Meredith, but she is truly impressive as director, creating the small realistic touches of the family’s life with and without Walter: the loneliness of their 7-year-old son, who creates a tender bond with his Beaver-Dad; the anger of their 17-year-old, Porter (another fierce performance by Anton Yelchin), who so doesn’t want to be like his father that his room is covered in post-its reminding him of the traits to avoid.
For most of the film you can actually forget that Gibson is such a divisive pubic figure, but at times the persona breaks through. When Walter argues with Porter and shoves him, the flash of anger brings to mind the most recent charges against Gibson, that he was abusive to his then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. The Beaver is so absorbing that I found myself resenting that rare intrusion of real-life issues, wishing that media gossip didn’t bleed into fiction so easily. Yet oddly, the scene only makes Walter seem more genuinely troubled.
Kyle Killen’s script is famous from its standing on the Black List as one of the best unproduced screenplays, but it has serious problems. The end is more suited to a horror film than a drama. A subplot about one of Porter’s school friends (Jennifer Lawrence) is too pat in its echoes of the main story. And that title - couldn’t the puppet have been a gopher or a chipmunk so we wouldn’t be constantly swerving into or trying to avoid double entendres?
Obviously, The Beaver would have been a hard sell even without the Gibson shadow. It became harder after his vitriolic phone conversations with Grigorieva, the mother of his young daughter, were leaked to the public. In their ongoing saga: she said he was violent, he said she was trying to extort money, he pleaded no contest to abuse charges and just yesterday she dropped the charges. Murky doesn’t begin to cover it. All I have to say is: it’s their problem. (Well, one other thing: what the hell did he think he was getting into in the first place?)
I understand why some people will never see another Gibson film on principle, and I’m not trying to change their minds or defend him. But since he's not out there spouting hate speech, I’m not judging him either. His personal demons aren’t my concern.
I’ve always admired Gibson as an actor and director - more for Braveheart than Apocalypto, but he’s a serious, ambitious artist. In The Beaver, he depicts a profoundly sad man trying to save himself, a haunting fictional portrait that lingers beyond the film, beyond the flickering life span of celebrity scandals.
Here's a link to Anne Thompson's video interview with Foster at SXSW. And here's the trailer: