May 25, 2011
The Beaver
By Conor Gilliland *

By Conor Gilliland *

“Everything’s going to be ok,” is a phrase you often hear in the midst of suffering. After a loved one dies, when a bone is broken, or in the middle of severe depression we obsessively look for the silver lining in situations – flailing attempts to mitigate the pain.

But, what if it’s not going to be ok? This is the question that Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” asks without flinching.

“Walter Black has gone missing,” announces the trailer for the movie. Walter (Mel Gibson) was once a successful family and business man. These days, however, he is lucky if he can get out of bed. The problem is debilitating depression.

Anti-depressants, therapy, and all the rest have failed to “fix” Walter. Walter is sick, but there is no medicine. So his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), reluctantly has him move out of the house.

Following a near-death experience in his exile, Walter wakes up to find he has a new friend. The friend is a Cockney beaver hand-puppet on his left arm, also played by Gibson. The beaver is designed to create psychological distance between Walter and the “negative aspects of his personality” and hopefully cure his depression.

Having found a voice through the beaver Walter attempts to engage the world once again, and with some success. The Beaver, as the hand-puppet is called, is a shot of super-glue in Walter’s otherwise crumbling life. But as one might expect, any success based on a projection through a hand-puppet is volatile at best.

Meanwhile Walter’s oldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), is only pushed further away by his father’s unusual behavior (Walter will only talk through the puppet) in a compelling father-son plot.

Gibson delivers a brilliant performance as he masterfully manages complicated dialogues between the depressed Walter and the witty beaver come to save Walter’s life. It is, of course, Gibson dialoguing with himself and athletically jumping between characters and accents. Gibson’s ability to navigate the two characters with convincing emotional dynamism in uncut scenes is an original and Oscar-worthy acting achievement.

Other notable performances in the film include Jodie Foster’s character as she convincingly fights for the sanity and affections of her husband, and the Black’s youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) as he innocently reconnects to his father through the beaver.

This film is not a comedy despite some lighter moments. It honestly asks the question, “What if everything isn’t going to be ok?” This question forces the viewer, along with Walter, to actually feel suffering, instead of glossing over it with tired clichés.

The film is as psychologically compelling as “Fight Club” was but much more personal and not as metaphysical. This is perhaps not surprising as David Fincher, the director of “Fight Club,” is one of Foster’s directing mentors.

Though not explicit, depictions of sexual encounters between husband and wife might be inappropriate for children. The film is rated PG-13.

Conor Gilliland is an affiliate professor of philosophy at Metropolitan State College of Denver. 
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