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SXSW Movie Review: ‘The Beaver’

March 22, 2011
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On the surface, The Beaver is the story of Walter Black’s struggle with depression and the unorthodox means with which he copes, and, finally, his desperate attempt to return to a normal life. On a deeper level, it presents a much darker problem: What if one morning you woke up to find you had lost all interest in your family? No reason, no explanation, just disinterest and dissatisfaction with the very things you thought were supposed to make you happy. This is Walter Black, played by Mel Gibson in perhaps the best performance of his career. Walter is CEO of a successful toy company, is married to a beautiful, smart woman successful in her own right (and played by director Jodie Foster), and has two children.

However, Walter’s life is far from perfect: His son Porter (Anton Yelchin) hates him and keeps an ongoing list of post-it notes detailing each quirk of his father that he himself exhibits and needs to rectify; his youngest son Henry feels so ignored that he retreats into anonymity, so much so that when his own mother picks him up from school, she needs to make several passes to find him; and his wife Meredith herself struggles to keep her family together before throwing up her hands and throwing Walter out.

But serious as these family problems are (and they aren’t particularly serious—what teenage boy doesn’t resent his father? What child doesn’t feel neglected? What mother doesn’t feel she’s the family adhesive?) they’re not the cause of Walter’s depression, or at least he seems so oblivious to them that it seems unlikely. In fact, no reason is given for Walter’s depression, and it’s for the best; he simply has it thrust upon him. It’s as terrifying a premise as a husband and father can imagine and one I wish the film would have focused on more. Eventually, of course, he finds a beaver hand puppet, and it becomes his coping mechanism, the buffer between his mind and the outside world. But this presents a fundamental problem: If Walter has no interest in his previous life (or life in general), why does he endeavor to get it back? It’s a fair enough question to ask and one I think the film fails to address, to its disadvantage.

Instead, The Beaver diverts into subplots, among them Porter’s high-school crush and Walter’s success with a beaver-themed kiddie tool kit. And they feel evasive. Foster sets the stage for drama, but when pressed, she shies away, retreating to an alternate story or mining laughs (and I don’t doubt that more than a few reviewers will have trouble categorizing The Beaver as either a comedy or a drama).

Foster herself, in her opening remarks before the film showed insisted that it was firmly a drama, and one rooted deeply in family. That was her probably original intent, but it presents another problem: The characters resolve their problems on their own. The Blacks are given very few scenes with each other, and most of them are used to show just how little they care for or how much they openly dislike the other members of their family. Of course, the family unit is ultimately preserved, but then I have to ask, “For what purpose?” If the Black family is truly a prison for its members, is that something worth preserving? Maybe that’s Foster’s point, but then why the *SPOILER* happy ending?

The Beaver’s not a bad film, but I felt it could have been so much more. Gibson is the clear stand-out, and his performance almost makes up for my reservations. This is a film that you can’t summarize without at least a snicker, and yet Gibson avoids every opportunity to misstep. There’s going to be a lot of people who will want to see him fail, maybe even some who will try to convince themselves that he does, but think about the difficulty of his role and then how effortlessly he draws you in, finding humor at just the right times but always remaining the deeply disturbed Walter Black. It’s no easy task, and regardless of how you may feel about the man, you have to admit him his skill.

The rest of the cast is dutiful and competent save for Yelchin as Porter. Granted his character is relegated to the B plot, but his dispassionate performance doesn’t help either. As an ex-teenager, I know they’re an emotionally charged herd, and Porter should be even more so, but Yelchin plays seething hatred and burning lust with mere petulance and mild curiousity.

I can’t recommend The Beaver, but I wouldn’t dissuade anyone interested from seeing it either. Like I wrote, it lays the groundwork for great potential, but in the end it keeps the audience, like The Beaver, at arm’s length.

 

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