Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a severely depressed, self-hating individual who pulls himself back from the brink of suicide and starts talking through a stuffed beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster. This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.
Did I mention Walter has a teenage son? When Porter Black (Anton Yelchin) isn’t selling term papers to his high school classmates or romancing one of his clients (Jennifer Lawrence), he spends his time writing down Post-Its of every one of his similarities to his father, no matter how minute (“Rubs eyebrows”), in staunch determination to eliminate every last one of them before he heads off to college. To this end, he is also planning a contrived roadtrip worthy of Elizabethtown, wherein he will visit locations around the country where “everything changed forever” (such as the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot), in a desperate effort to find himself.
I’ll be blunt – I hated this character. He felt like the worst sort of indie cliché, and I found every moment of his screentime excruciating. By the end of the film, we’re seemingly meant to draw parallels between Porter and his father, but they never quite landed. Apart from some apparent OCD, Porter seems a great deal more high-functioning, intelligent, and capable than Walter. While it’s certainly possible that he might slip into a depressed and self-destructive state, the film never really shakes the feeling that no matter what happens, this kid will be just fine. Yelchin’s performance is acceptable, but the character just feels sloppily and unbelievably written.
In fact, suspension of disbelief is one of the hardest things about watching The Beaver – this story never quite feels like it could take place in the real world. Porter’s subplot took up nearly half of the film and felt like a complete distraction, and Walter’s story also felt unfocused. While I could accept the absurd degree to which Walter’s family and colleagues accepted his newfound puppetry, his rapid ascendence to fame over a nationwide craze of…children’s woodchopping kits (?) was just too much of a stretch, and felt completely out of place amid the dark family drama that was brewing.
Jodie Foster (also the film’s director) gives a heartbreaking performance as Walter’s wife Meredith – she and Gibson have always had impressive chemistry together, and this film tests it to destruction. In one of the film’s best scenes, the couple goes out to dinner for their 20th anniversary – without spoiling how it ends, I will say that it was physically uncomfortable to watch, and that it was an impressive showcase of both acting and direction.
Porter’s love interest, Norah (Lawrence) gives a rather unsettling speech near the end of the film, ostensibly spelling out its message – maybe everything’s not going to be okay, but at least we’ve got each other. The tone of this speech was as dark as the rest of the film, but as a moral of this somber tale, it somehow works. The Beaver is a deeply flawed, but profoundly affecting film. I can’t say I especially welcomed its effects, but it may be a fascinating character piece for those who have suffered from depression (or their loved ones) – those who know the loneliness that can engulf these individuals even when they’re surrounded by people who desperately want to help.
The Beaver may strain credulity, but its raw sentiment feels real and tragic. That said, it’s not a film I would comfortably recommend to anyone.
FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10