Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Official Synopsis: An emotional story about a man on a journey to re-discover his family and re-start his life. Plagued by his own demons, Walter Black was once a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from depression. No matter what he tries, Walter can't seem to get himself back on track...until a beaver hand puppet enters his life. http://www.thebeaver-movie.com/
THE BEAVER is a difficult film to watch and a difficult film to review. The most difficult films to review are those that you feel you have to be careful who you recommend it to. After the show, my wife compared the movie to ORDINARY PEOPLE and I see where she's coming from with that. Both films deal with families in breakdown and slowly build tension in the audience and in the family dynamic until the boil bursts and there is a confusing mix of emotional relief and discomfort.
What I would say is that if you are someone who suffers from depression, do....not...go...see....this. You will want to kill yourself in the middle of it. If you are someone who has to deal with a loved one who suffers from suicidal depression, do...not...go...see...this. It will dredge up such memories and feelings that I can't imagine the experience being at all positive.
However, if you can get past the bizarre concept of a man with a talking beaver puppet on his hand and stay sufficiently detached, you will find a brutally honest film dealing with generational suicidal depression. This is a movie about what happens inside those cookie-cutter homes on Gingerbread Lane that everyone recognizes. This movie is about the fronts that people put on so that they can just handle being around people. This movie is about the struggle of a family when the pattern of suicidal depression has taken root and threatens to destroy Walter Black. And in the wake, is the wife who desperately loves Walter but cannot understand what he is thinking or feeling. His oldest son is terrified of becoming just like his father, who is also following the pattern of "Grandpa Jerry, who got sick in his head and now lives in the cemetery", so he is emotionally detached and swirling downward in his own confusingly amoral world. The generational pattern of suicidal depression is taking root in him as well and he is angry about it. The youngest son is a vapor. One of those little kids who just disappears into the background. He has no sense of himself and just want his dad back, but his dad's mind has left even though his body has stuck around.
As the movie begins, Walter sleeps all the time. All he can do is ruminate on his life. His self-loathing seeps from every pore. He cannot accept love from his family because he can't love himself. And the movie makes it very clear that there is no precipitating trauma or event, this has been a progressive slide into a depression that keeps getting deeper and he cannot crawl out of. When a failed suicide attempt ends up with an old beaver puppet on his hand, the voice in Walter's head takes outer form in the beaver.
What should be a goofy, Jim Carrey comedy full of slapstick and junior-high school toilet humor is instead an extended uncomfortable movie-going experience. The tension on screen as the people around Walter see that he has had a breakdown also fills the theater. The tension in the audience was strong.
It is an exceptionally well-directed and well-acted film that is not terribly fun to watch and the preview audience I saw it with seemed a bit perplexed about what they were seeing. Mostly it was a silent audience, but occasionally nervous titters of laughter would seep out but get pulled back in immediately almost as if they were unsure whether it was okay to laugh or not.
Credit goes to Jodie Foster, who plays Walter's wife and to Anton Yelchin, who plays Walter's oldest son, for such strong performances up against Mel Gibson. Mel, as Walter, is so incredible in his performance that, given Mel's public breakdown immediately after the filming of this movie wrapped, it is impossible as a viewer to completely separate the two of them. I felt like I was seeing into Mel himself more than I was seeing Walter. An incredible acting job and one I am still not sure was as much a performance for Mel so much as a therapeutic experiment that perhaps exacerbated his own struggles rather than worked them out. But, as far as a film experience goes, it makes for a deeper experience than it might otherwise not be.
Foster's direction is confident and experienced. There are images that were brilliantly put together, especially those with Mel alone where his loneliness and that sense of being trapped in a box unable to escape is fully evoked. When he is alone with the beaver and launches into a physical battle with himself that brings to life a metaphorical vision of what happens inside his mind is again, brilliant, but uncomfortable to watch. The audience wants to laugh...but they can't because while it is ridiculous, it's not funny. It's intense.
Foster's "wife" character is a designer of rollercoasters, which is another metaphor that plays out in the film. Depression is exemplified by a rollercoaster of manic swings up and down. Walter hits bottom at the beginning but the beaver gives him a source to pull up and out and he swings wildly to a manic euphoria which pulls his family along with hope that he has beaten this thing. But again, this film is about depression, so the tension gets tighter as that euphoric round begins another hurtle downward...deeper than ever before.
This is not a "feel-good" movie. But there is value to it. As a work of art, it is well-done and has much to say about the human condition and how we, and those around us, struggle internally while maintaining facades. There are metaphors upon metaphors here that reflect our best understanding of depression and how different people react to it and are affected by it. The film does not end on a happy note. It does end on a positive note with hope for the future. But there is no pretense that Walter will never face a depressive episode again.
For a movie about Mel Gibson talking with a toy beaver on his hand, this was deeper and better than it had any right to be.
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