SXSW Film Festival Day 6: Mel Gibson and ‘The Beaver’


Any of my line-shyness is now gone. At the beginning of the week you have to work for an opening to talk to the person standing next to you in line. Now, with the end of the festival in sight, there’s a level of urgency. What movies haven’t you seen yet? What movies have you seen that were good that I haven’t seen? It’s protocol to now get in line and immediately ask, “So, what’s good?”. No superficial “How are you?” or “Where are you from?”, people just get right to it.

The first film announced in this year’s SXSW film line-up was The Beaver, “that Mel Gibson movie with the puppet” is the popular synopsis. There clearly was a high level of shared trepidation going into this screening on the part of the audience, the press, and even the director/star Jodie Foster.

This was the film’s world premiere and also highly unusual as it was the first time it was screened in front of an audience. Almost every film has test screenings. Foster said she felt like she needed to “keep it safe” until people were ready to see it, and even now she realizes not everyone is ready, or even willing to see it.

This film has an incredible uphill battle to fight to gain an audience. Prior to the premier, everyone I talked to shrugged it off with something like, “Ooh, yeah I’m not seeing that movie”. But I was surprised to see one of the longest lines so far at South By, with all those same folks in a line wrapped twice around the block. At least at SXSW curiosity trumps disgust with the off-screen Mel.

Jodie Foster said in her introduction, “This is not a funny movie”. ‘Twas a fair warning. The actual tone was nowhere near appropriately conveyed via the trailer, which only gives us: Mel Gibson…has a beaver…? Forget what you know and disregard any preconceived notions or prejudices before seeing this film or at least try very hard.

It seemed that only about half the audience was willing to go along on the emotional roller coaster. (Foster’s character in the movie is a roller coaster engineer – a detail I only find funny in hindsight). Mel Gibson’s character, Walter Black, is “deeply depressed”, perhaps even a notch or two more than Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. Things get pretty dark. It’s not that the film doesn’t handle the subject matter well, it’s just that not everyone is going to feel comfortable “working for it” as Foster said was “required”.

The Beaver is not the Mel Gibson one-man show you might have assumed it would be. The eldest son Porter, sublimely played by Anton Yelchin, has a parallel story arc that deals with his struggle to rid himself of all similarities he has with his father (he keeps a sticky-note chart of all 51 traits). And the youngest son, Henry (played by the adorable Riley Thomas Stewart) is a much-needed breath of fresh air. I found myself trying to share the innocent perspective of his character, just so things wouldn’t seem so dismal.

The screenplay for The Beaver, written by Kyle Killen (creator/writer of the TV series Lone Star) was on the Blacklist (the annual list of the best unproduced screenplays) in 2008. Foster said she had read it, decided she wanted to direct it, but there was already a director attached. So she just waited for him to drop out. Though Steve Carell and Jim Carrey were both attached at points to play the lead, Mel Gibson is excellent in the role. Despite how you may feel about Mel Gibson personally, you will be hard pressed to argue that his performance anything short of arresting.

When the credits rolled (and while hearing several deep sobs from the audience around me), two of my “line friends” said, “I think I liked it…”?

It does have to sit with you for a while as it is not an easy movie to swallow. Since the screening, the consensus I’ve heard is split. People really appreciated it (“liked” doesn’t seem to be the appropriate word) or people just “weren’t comfortable with it” but do not deny the film’s quality. This is exactly how I feel about Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (which The Beaver reminded me of the whole way through). I can respect that.