The puppet works.
That’s the most important thing you need to know about The Beaver, in which a depressed toy-company executive (Mel Gibson) seeks the counsel of an animal hand puppet. Thanks to an unlikely combination of Gibson’s tempered lunacy, Jodie Foster’s judicious direction and a sensitive, wry script by Kyle Killen, a project that sounded like a Death to Smoochy-style disaster may end up as one of the more moving films of the year.
Gibson plays Walter Black, who despite attempts at therapy and other methods still feels as if “he’s died and hasn’t had the good sense to take his body with him.” (See what I mean about the screenplay?) Walter is barely aware of his wife (Foster) and two sons, the younger of which he routinely forgets to spot in the school pick-up line. (“You passed me again.”)
The Beaver is a bleakly honest portrait of depression, and Gibson – for reasons that I’m sure the tabloids will speculate on – is an empathetic vessel for failure and despair. Gibson’s Walter is beaten, hollow and irretrievably sad. Perhaps because he’s tried everything else, perhaps because he happens to run a toy company, Walter awakens after a long night of desperation to find a ratty beaver hand puppet with creepy, dead eyes offering a new sort of therapy. Basically it involves wearing the puppet and speaking through it at all times.
Gibson and Foster are very clever in making this a tenable thing to depict onscreen. We first meet the beaver in a sly shot as Walter, who has passed out in a bathtub, raises his puppeted hand into the frame in order to prop himself up. After that, though, the beaver is rarely given the full frame; Gibson almost always shares the screen and most often you can see his mouth moving as the beaver “speaks.” The overall effect is an oddly comic tone that nevertheless keeps the focus on the sad reality of Walter’s sickness.
“Eventually what seems strange becomes common,” the beaver says at one point, and that is perhaps the movie’s greatest feat. By disarming us with its oddness, the film creates a loose space for an honest exploration of the awkwardness, confusion and hurt that accompany mental illness. What defines acceptable treatment when it comes to depression? How much should a family sacrifice for the mental stability of a loved one? This time, such tough questions aren’t wrestled with in a teary melodrama or a dry documentary but, of all things, a black comedy about a beaver hand puppet starring one of our most volatile stars.
Sometimes, Hollywood works.