The internet darts being hurled at The Beaver are many and unvaried, all focused on the question of who in hell wants to see a Mel Gibson movie in which the star, vilified as “Hollywood’s most vocal Jew-hater” and despised racist, homophobic, misogynistic, abusive, alcoholic, trigger-tempered paranoiac, pours out his heart to a beaver hand puppet?
The answer is: You do. If you can get past your feelings for the troubled Gibson, you get to watch a high-wire performance of the highest caliber. It’s your call. My call is that The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster from a script by fearless first-timer Kyle Killen, is operating on a plane far above multiplex formula. This flawed but heartfelt movie has the power to sneak up and floor you. Foster, Gibson’s pal since they co-starred in 1994’s Maverick, directs with blunt honesty and disarming grace. Her subject, as in the two other films she’s directed — 1991’s Little Man Tate and 1995’s Home for the Holidays — is the pain and dark humor of family dysfunction.
Foster also brings her uncanny acting instincts to the role of Meredith, a wife and mother of two whose world is coming apart. She blames her husband, Walter Black (Gibson), the CEO of a toy company who has watched depression rot his career and his marriage. Walter can’t get off the couch, except to reach for another drink. His teen son, Porter (the outstanding Anton Yelchin), loathes Walter, keeping Post-its to help him erase any resemblance to father. Younger son Henry (the gifted Riley Thomas Stewart) still adores Walter but can’t sleep. No wonder Meredith throws the bum out.
In a hotel room, Walter tries to off himself by leaping from a balcony. Instead, he accidentally collapses into bed with a beaver puppet he picked up in a liquor-store dumpster. “Wake up,” says the Beaver now attached to Walter’s hand. Yup, the puppet talks. And in a Cockney croak that Gibson cleverly develops to sound like Michael Caine on a contact high. Walter moves his lips, but it’s the Beaver giving orders to Walter on how to live his life.
This is the moment that separates the true movie lover from the popcorn eater in it for a quickie. In a style more European than American, Foster shows no fear of abstraction. The Beaver is Walter’s id run amok. At first, Meredith believes Walter’s lie that the Beaver is a “prescription puppet.” The therapy results in a bout of wild sex that may be the kinkiest three-way ever. Yo, Beaver. Henry is just happy to have his dad back. Porter, understandably, is creeped out. Not just by Walter, but by himself. Porter’s dream girl, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar nominee for Winter’s Bone, again proves her shining skill), reminds him that his lucrative business in writing personal essays for students has removed him from his own emotional life. Foster uses her experience as a child actor to bring out the nuanced best in these young performers, who are touching without ever slipping into sappy.
Still, it’s the hell Walter has made for himself that keeps pulling you in. An anniversary dinner with Meredith, in which she demands he dump the Beaver at home, leaves him a shaking wreck. He resents her gift of a memory box filled with photos of their past, claiming it’s depression he suffers from, not amnesia. All of which leads Walter to potentially tragic alternatives.
It may not be possible to totally disengage Walter’s crisis from Gibson’s own. If you haven’t seen the darkness gnawing at Gibson in the films he’s directed, from Braveheart to The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, then you haven’t been paying attention. Foster has. For all its tonal shifts, The Beaver is a potent provocation about the bruises inflicted from just being human. Foster’s film and Gibson’s grieving performance bring that point forcefully and feelingly home.