[19 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When someone is diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal disease, the tragedy is truly profound. We view the person walking into the unknown of a ‘life’ after this one as noble and yet needing all the real time love and support we can muster. We retrace their steps, maintain a quivering stiff upper lip, and struggle with our own sense of mortality. Near the end, when it looks like time will trump hope, we make peace with the process and pray our own exit from this world won’t be so shattering - that is, if the problem is physical. God forbid it’s mental. Then we have limited sympathies, or to put it more plainly, we can’t compare the death of the body with that of the brain. A sick psyche unsettles us in ways that work on our own internal controls. Where once we felt bad, or even sad, a whole series of quarrels arise - and many of them aren’t as gracious or dignified.
The Beaver, the newest film from Oscar winning actress turned director Jodie Foster, asks us to accept the raging depression of Walter Black (an excellent Mel Gibson) as the same level of sickness as a cancer or leukemia. It is a seemingly incurable plague that has driven a wedge between his wife (the filmmaker) and his two children - youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and eldest boy Porter (Anton Yelchin). The latter is also walking his own personal tightrope. Poised to go to college and leave his fractured family behind, he sells homework to fellow students to earn his eventual escape. But when class valedictorian and head cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) comes looking for help with her graduation speech, he finds a kindred spirit. In the meantime, Walter has attempted suicide, only to be “saved” by a ratty beaver puppet he finds in the trash. Soon, our damaged man is trying to rebuild his life - personally and professional - via the sage advice of a cockney accented kid’s toy.
There are several sore spots one has to overcome to truly appreciate and enjoy this otherwise fine film. Oddly enough, the first and foremost has little to do with the tabloid terror at the center. Gibson, as usual, gives the kind of performance that marks his previous status as a superstar, Oscar worthy while clearly never going to be recognized as same. All ranting baby mama drama aside, he is brilliant. He is dark and destructive, lost in a way few onscreen fathers have ever been. During the opening act, Walter is so awash in his dire downward spiral that we really don’t believe he will ever crawl back. While slightly comic in its Harold and Maude audacity, his drive toward suicide is shocking to behold. Later, when the toys that are literally haunting him step in to help, Gibson still reminds us that there is deep pain and a continuing psychological crisis going on. He’s not cured, just convalescing.
Also not up for discussion are the rest of the cast. Foster is fine, doing a weirdly nuanced turn on a the normative supermom faced with a fading, distant marriage and an immediate mental crisis. Her delivery is clipped, rapid, and almost instinctual. By the time Walter and his puppet have proven successful, she slows down a bit and lets her thoughts finally drop the auto-pilot vibe. Little Riley Stewart is also good, precocious without being too “kid cute”. That just leaves Lawrence and Yelchin and both are required to do a lot of heavy psychological lifting. Gibson’s got the shtick - the goofy toy, the craggy streets of London brogue, the bonkers persona. Our young people must argue for the reality of this situation, how a dissolving family forces you to literally bang your head against the wall, or, in tragedy, turn to a secret illegal life.
No, all the performances carry things quite well. Instead, it’s the concept that will have you either scratching your head or instantly engaged. Using a puppet as a conduit to someone’s inner turmoil is about as close to dealing with seriousness via ventriloquism as the movies should ever get. Unless the main character is eventually going to go psycho and start chasing people around with a butcher knife or chainsaw, channeling through a children’s plaything is very problematic. It begs the true nature of the disease, something mental illness already has as a downside. Then it asks you to accept things that proper professionals might insinuate, albeit in this case through the buck-toothed facade of a fake animal. Yes, there is a moment in the middle where Walter speaks with The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer where it works - flawlessly. You believe every word, every metaphysical insight the beaver has to offer. But it’s not always foolproof.
Indeed, where The Beaver stumbles a bit is in consistently employing the device to avoid the more devastating dramatics inherent in the conflict. Imagine Robert Redford’s masterful Ordinary People except Conrad now deals with brother Buck’s death through a marionette, or Shoot the Moon with Dana Hill mimicking characters from Saturday Night Live. As a literary device, it makes sense (the other ‘self’, compensating for the one that can’t speak). As a visual device, it has its barriers. It starts every intervention as a joke, begging the viewer to join in with the feigned frivolity. Even worse, Gibson is a good enough actor to sell this stuff straight, even as part of some bifurcated personality disorder. Instead, we get a puppet to play with.
And yet the truths The Beaver strikes at are so stunning and so emotional that we forgive the stunt. We watch in awe as one man disintegrates and then slowly puts himself back together. We see a wife walk the fine line between forgiveness and fleeing. We see one son cotton to his father’s newly developed childlike wonder, while another cements his status as a ex-family member in the making. All the while, the world turns, the news cycle celebrates and criticizes, and just like a terminal disease, the mental illness lingers…threatening…never really going or actually gone. If this film argues for anything, it’s the devastating consequences of a malady without a course of chemo, or an invasive and complicated surgical strategy. Instead, someone like Walter Black is bruised in the brain. Like The Beaver, such a state is complicated, aggravating, but definitely worth fighting to understand and accept.