SXSW FILM FESTIVAL
SXSW Review: 'The Beaver' is Full of Honesty, Emotion and Deftness
by Jeremy Kirk
May 5, 2011
For the limited opening of The Beaver this weekend, we are re-posting Jeremy's full review from SXSW.
Walter Black (Mel Gibson's character in The Beaver) has issues. Husband, father, and head of a toy manufacturing company, he suffers from severe depression, so much so, in fact, that he has alienated his family from any real connection. Walter is at the end of his rope, or tie, quite literally when he stumbles upon a stuffed puppet, a beaver, laying in a dumpster. Walter takes the puppet and begins communicating through it to his family and colleagues. He sees the puppet and his voice through it as the only way to communicate, to create that bond with the familiar world around him that he has long since lose.
The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster, is a film that will lose audiences pretty much from the concept level. It asks a lot of the viewer just as Walter asks a lot of those he interacts with through the beaver. It's a premise that is sure to divide potential audiences, and the film goes in directions that are sure to divide viewers even more. However, The Beaver, not exactly the lighthearted family drama one might be expecting going in, is a phenomenal story of one man's disconnect from his own world as well as his sanity. It's a film about mental illness and presents a much darker tale when all is said and done than what is first anticipated. Nonetheless, Kyle Killen's screenplay is remarkably inventive and firm, Foster's execution is spot-on, and Mel Gibson's lead performance is absolutely breathtaking.
The first element you notice in The Beaver that takes it up several notches is Walter's inability to even speak to his family. Save for voiceover narration in the beginning, in which Gibson introduces us to his "Beaver" voice - we'll get to that momentarily - we don't even hear the character speak a line of dialogue until he has found the puppet, hit rock bottom, and begins his bond with this inanimate object.
It's all a dark subject matter when you think about it. Walter is mentally ill. He is painfully depressed. However, Foster's direction and Killen's script don't keep it from ever being funny. There's a situational comedy that stems from Walter talking to his family with the puppet. It's not so much the filmmaking fun of the character or his mentality. Far from it, but the puppet brings the character to life, and you begin to get a taste of how uplifted and charismatic this man once was before the darkness set in.
The puppet itself is a big factor in this, too. It truly is a separate character in The Beaver, even though it's just a stitched up puppet with staring eyes and buck teeth. The design of the puppet is where its liveliness begins but it's heavily aided by the way Gibson works it and Foster shoots it. The puppet's head moves around, observing Walter's world, even slowly rising behind objects as if waking from a nap. More than a few times Foster shoots the puppet in focus leaving Walter in soft focus behind it. It forces you to watch the beaver as its own character rather than just an extension of the film's protagonist, and that goes a long way in selling the audience on the premise.
But it's not all Walter's story here. Foster plays Meredith, Walter's wife, and Anton Yelchin plays Porter, his son, with solidity. Porter is a character who doesn't understand his place in the world. He hates his father, yet he finds himself acting more and more like him. The hole he is slowly punching through his bedroom wall with his forehead presents concepts of both escape and frustration, and Yelchin delivers the performance with a tight grip. The subplot involving Porter's relationship with a fellow student played by Jennifer Lawrence seems there to give him one more reach to the outside world but little else.
But it's Gibson who really shines in The Beaver. Nuance and pain brimming in his eyes and every wrinkle in his face, the actor firmly grips the mental state of his character here. It's not a highly original idea Gibson playing someone with mental problems, but the actor finds fresh and powerful ways of making you sense you've hardly seen it before. That's not even getting into the masterful way he works the puppet and gives it its Ray Winstone-esque voice. Gibson is subdued and thoughtful about his role up until the tonal shift, the moment when we realize what we thought was "rock bottom" earlier could even get worse for Walter. It's in those later moments when Gibson is able to go full Riggs, come out of the proverbial shell, and make Walter's true voice heard.
It's those later moments that are sure to divide viewers greatly (as it already has). A darkness presents itself that you didn't see coming, but it never feels depressive for the sake of being depressive. Killen's script has something definite to say about mental illness, resulting in outbursts of emotion both good and bad.
The Beaver ends up being not about one man's therapy that helps him recreate his bond with the world but a much more deep-rooted tale of one man being held hostage by his own mental state. It's about buildings that can only rise after the rubble of a disaster has been cleared, the bonds that can only be formed by pushing through and allowing the ones you love to shape them. The shift in The Beaver is where it may lose even more viewers than from the premise alone, but it's at that moment when the film solidifies itself as being truly great, staggeringly emotional and abjectly beautiful. The Beaver has a voice, and what it has to say is something magnificent.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 9 out of 10