Mel Gibson is not a half-assed kind of guy. He’s all in. To paraphrase Mae West, “When he’s good, he’s very good,” but when he’s bad, he’s good and crazy. It seems this applies to both his life and his movie roles. For every instance where Gibson has said or done something horribly inappropriate, there’s someone willing to stand up for him, and not just random Hollywood types, but people from across the socio-cultural spectrum – gender, religion, class and race. He touches people and he certainly touches nerves, which is what makes it difficult to review his latest performance in The Beaver, two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster’s third feature at the helm. Her sensibilities tend towards intimate dramas and quiet character studies that rarely drill into the emotional depths she mines as an actress, but it seems as if, with The Beaver, she’s willing to allow Gibson to dive headlong into a dark pit, an abyss of the self that’s far too familiar.
Toy company president Walter Black (Gibson) is slipping. On the verge of succumbing to suicidal tendencies, he finds a lifeline in the form of a hand puppet, a ratty old beaver that talks him off the ledge and soon starts speaking for him full-time in a heavy accent reminiscent of Ray Winstone circa Sexy Beast (minus the awesomely foul tongue). Walter passes out cards informing people that the Beaver is a therapeutic intervention. The Beaver works like a charm at the office where the puppet kick starts a revival of the company and proves to be a promotional genie.
At home, though, the results are more mixed. Walter’s wife Meredith (Foster) begrudgingly accepts the situation in the beginning because the couple was one step away from separating and suddenly Walter, through the Beaver, reconnects with their youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and warms considerably in his relations with her. But older son Porter (Anton Yelchin), with his own share of problems at school, refuses to cozy up to the puppet that has seemingly become the master of his father.
It all has to come to a head, of course, although before the confrontation, there’s the sadly creepy sense of watching Gibson’s own therapy sessions played out on the screen. The man (let’s call it the “good” side), the fool (the “good and crazy” side), and the actor (the combination of the two) fight for supremacy and in what proves to be a close match, the actor wins out.
Gibson’s performance “dances with the devil in the pale moonlight.” There’s no attempt to use ventriloquism, so we see Walter’s mouth moving, but after audiences overcome the initial distraction of this set-up, what Gibson is up to slowly reveals itself. He is infusing the puppet with life beyond the words and a real character, separate and distinct from Walter, emerges. The Beaver moves of his own accord and draws attention away from Walter, a man seeking a dam or a barrier against the world at large. This leads to the puppet sensing that it has become the dominant presence in the pairing and forcing Walter towards the inevitable act to reclaim control of his life.
There is humor and kindness in what Gibson is able to accomplish here and that comes largely from working with a director like Foster, an obviously genuine friend and supporter, but also a filmmaker with the ability to create a safe space, and one not simply devoted to spinning his unfortunate actions in the media cycle. The Beaver highlights the first step, after the third or fourth slide, on the road to recovery. (tt stern-enzi)