Movie Review: The Beaver
By Matthew Huntley
May 12, 2011
Like the moods and feelings that accompany depression, Jodie Foster’s The Beaver has its fair share of ups and downs. It’s about a severely depressed man who starts using a beaver-shaped puppet to communicate with the outside world. He talks with an English accent and wears the puppet on his hand everywhere he goes - in the shower and when he makes love to his wife.
Given this situation, the thought that immediately jumps to mind is that this man is crazy (as is the film’s premise), but for anyone who’s ever experienced depression, they know all too well it’s an illness that can leave its victims feeling so hopeless and empty, and without an identity or purpose, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get better. If speaking through a puppet is one way of doing it, well, that’s what they do, no matter what anybody thinks.
The Beaver could have played as a traditional human drama in which the man finds himself in a funk, bounces back with the aid of a puppet, and then realizes he doesn’t need it anymore because of the love and support of his family. That happens to a degree in the film, but one thing Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen are mindful of is that things aren’t that easy. The film takes depression seriously and though our first instincts are to laugh at a movie called The Beaver, it eventually grabs hold of us because we realize and appreciate how much it knows its own subject.
The film stars Mel Gibson as Walter Black, the CEO of a toy company he inherited from his father. Walter’s business has been steadily declining, as has his relationship with his wife, Meredith (Foster), his eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), and his youngest, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). What’s interesting, and honest, about the film is that it doesn’t offer a simple explanation of why Walter has stooped into such a depressed state of mind. There’s no clear cut reason why he wants to sleep all the time or drink himself to death in a hotel. The film knows depression can’t always be rationalized. It also knows it can’t always be treated with medication and self-help books.
So Walter devises his own treatment when he finds a puppet in the dumpster and starts talking to it and as it. The beaver promises Walter he’ll find a way for him to get better but that he has to stay disciplined. Now, we’re not quite sure whether Walter is aware he’s talking to/as a puppet, or if his mind has just become so jaded it’s made this decision on its own, but it’s probably better the film doesn’t provide a concrete answer (Walter is probably not too sure himself). What matters to us is whether this story, given its most peculiar premise, can be told effectively and truthfully, and Jodie Foster proves that with the right care and sensitivity, it can be.
Not that there aren’t a few missteps. In an uneven subplot, Porter develops a relationship with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), his high school’s valedictorian. Porter has built quite a reputation and income for writing other students’ papers and she’d like him to write her graduation speech.