RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 16: Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” (2011)

The Beaver

The Players…

Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence and Riley Stewart.

The Story…

When depression consumes former business magnate Walter Black, it takes a truckload of booze, an unplugged TV and a Dumpster dove beaver puppet to pull him out of the blackness. At last Walter finds a mouthpiece for his troubles via a puppet’s toothy yap. But his estranged family wonders: who’s doing the talking here? Walter or the Beaver? Seems no one can be certain, least of all Walter. But hell, this mutual relationship sure beats excessive sleep and disaffection. Welcome to a new normal. With buck teeth.

The Rant…

Aeons ago RIORI covered Silver Linings Playbook, a good movie that handled a rather prickly subject: bipolar disorder, often dubbed by the laymen and Jimi Hendrix as manic depression. Leading man Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of bipolar was very accurate, and the film cannily handled the day-to-day struggles a guy like that had to deal with just to get on with life. To say that Cooper’s acting conveyed a manic depressive’s storm and stress quite well is akin to suggesting that the Petronas Towers are a kinda tall. And that kind of understatement is not dissimilar to how the gentry often views someone in the grips of a bipolar episode: freakish or not truly sick since you can’t see any Band-Aids. Snap out of it!

Playbook, though entertaining, was at times a difficult watch. Sure, Cooper’s character Pat was going through personal upheaval (he lost his wife, home and job), but that disorder was only made worse by how Pat was treated by both his family and the community. He was regarded as fragile, unstable or just plain nuts. Damaged goods. There was a sharp note of alienation running through the movie, like others would either rile Pat and/or get his crazy all over them like with an exploding can of Coke. And the alienation wasn’t limited to just Pat’s inner turmoil, either.

I’m not an expert—but I’ve seen one on TV—however I believe that despite the trepidation and judgmental attitude polite society has towards individuals suffering from “mild” mental illnesses, they like to rubberneck. They want to see the car wreck. It’s done either out of sheer curiosity, or reassurance in the vein of, “Whoa, sure glad I ain’t that guy!”

But seriously, we all do crazy stuff now and again.

I don’t think the above attitude is too far removed towards celebs like Mel Gibson, what with his infamous car accident and ensuing drunken, anti-Semitic tirade. A literal car wreck this time. The aftermath was Gibson’s Hollywood career shot to sh*t and all the good, Oscar-winning work got tossed in the trash. Some would say rightly so. But this happened almost a decade ago, and other Hollywood types have done and said a lot of shameful things that hurt their careers only to bounce back later on (e.g. Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr and to a lesser degree, Mike Tyson) over a longer span of time. So why does Mel have to wear ashes and sackcloth for this long? I mean, Tyson, a champion boxer, beat up his wife. Then he gets a cameo in The Hangover.

Again, no expert here, but I think it might’ve had something to do with Mel having bipolar disorder. That and him making a very public announcement of it, too.

Yeah, Mad Max has gone on record as being a manic depressive. It might explain a few of his acting roles in the past (hard to believe seeing how well put together Martin Riggs was, not to mention how the cracked Mr Rockatansky carried himself in the face of family tragedy) in addition to his fevered directorial projects. A more cynical view could be taken, merely sniffing at Gibson claiming his illness had a direct effect on his undoing, therefore making him exempt from being such a doosh. Sure, his end run was highly publicized, and if all the media vultures picking at his (alleged) f*cked up psyche did any good I’d be first in line for the lab results (“Good news, Mr Gibson! We can rule out trichinosis!”). But sh*tty behavior is sh*tty behavior, and Mel’s antics have stuck to his career like a barnacle on a mid-19th Century ocean going schooner. And it’s drowned him.

Call me a sympathetic fool—or simply, fool—but I can get beyond such media-inflated bullsh*t. I myself a manic depressive can be vouchsafe in giving a Gibson a small pass. Small, mind you. When I get a manic episode, I’m quick to rile, lash out, scream and yell and verbally attack people who get too close to me. I really blow my stack, then crash like hours after emptying the fifth mug of coffee. It’s a typical scenario for a lot of manic depressives, doubtless Mel got that way, too. So I hear ya, Max. I hear ya.

But having the always objective entertainment news crews coming down on you for your trespasses which may have been the result of a bipolar episode doesn’t make the scene seem very sympathic to the plight of a sick man. Or a narcissist assh*le Hollywood type like Mel Gibson. There have been oodles of cases like Gibson’s; he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. With a chopper in the air and half empty bottle of vodka in his crotch. It’s the car wreck thing again, and boy do we lap it up, chew on it and spit it out as soon as the next celeb kicks over a box of kitties. We love the gory details, seeing our Olympians fall, kick ’em a while and then move on to the next victim. We sit away from the action, totally removed from the context and sit all safe and smug in front of a screen assured that he would never be me. Change the channel.

Another take on Gibson’s case could be one of caution. Let’s face it: mental illness is scary. It’s slippery. It’s not like a broken leg, heart attack or cancer treatment. It’s just under the surface, and anyone could be suffering from a holy host of ailments that are not immediately overt and often simply dismissed as personality flaws. Gibson’s drunken, hateful, incoherent babbling could’ve come from anyone’s mouth. You witness behavior like that and you might tell yourself, with only a whit of self-assurednesss, “sure am glad that I’m not like that! In the immortal words of Wallace “Vinizzi” Shawn, “Incontheebable!”

Truth be told, it most likely is both. Because we’re all a bit dotty in head. Whether it’s pro athletes refusing to change their socks during a winning streak to simply crossing your fingers to ensure positive results, we all do illogical sh*t with absolute assurance daily. When was the last time you checked to see if the refrigerator light really went out after you closed the door? I’ll wait.

*upset to see the last can of Crystal Pepsi was snatched up*

Okay. I guess this is a longwinded rant (what? From me? Naw) about judge not lest thee be sumpin’ or other pass the ammo. All the above codswallop was just a setup to the movie meat, y’know. With this week’s send-up, its virtually impossible to separate the artist from the art. We know Mel pulled a colossal f*ck up with his career, which may or may not have been a direct result from not being properly medicated. But the guy’s been in the movies since the late 70s; it’s what he knows. The notion of purging onscreen and really stretching The Method to clean out his closet must’ve really appealed to Gibson’s fractured state of mind. It might’ve also been considered that director Jodie Foster knows a way about how psychologically abused characters tick based on her CV (e.g.: Taxi Driver, The Accused, The One About Fava Beans And Chianti, etc) and might know a trick or three to make such a screwy premise work. There were most likely miles of cracking knuckles knotted into crossed fingers (you kooks, one and all) to see if this cinematic encounter group might gain traction.

An argument could be made that The Beaver was vicarious group therapy for Mel, as well as a half-ass apology for his multiple incidents of very public douchebaggery. Again, we all do crazy sh*t. Shameful, nasty, stupid crazy sh*t. It’s part of what makes us human. Now utilizing the voyeuristic aspect of watching movies in the dark—say like with a film about a distraught Mel Gibson battling depression with suicidal ideations—perhaps The Beaver was designed, in part, to get the hoi polloi to ask a question about themselves:

“Hey. Could become like Gibson?”

Relax. Deep breaths. There, there.

Looks like you could use a puppet…

Walter Black (Gibson) once had a life. He was loving family man, caring husband and successful businessman. He had the ideal white picket fence existence. Crushing clinical depression took all that away.

Walter’s gone now. The man he once was has disappeared. His family doesn’t recognize him anymore. His employees no longer respect nor understand Walter’s checking out. He’s gotten therapy and the proper medications, but nothing’s working. All he seems to do to cope is sleep. A lot. It’s his only escape. And his chosen escape is cutting himself off from his wife and kids. His ever-patient—some may claim overly patient—wife Meredith (Foster) eventually has her fill of her moping, disaffected husband and shows him the door. His sickness is hurting the whole family, and as an act of preservation she gives Walter the boot in hopes he’ll return with his sh*t together someday.

That someday happens right quick. Not long after his eviction, Walter decides to end it all. But not before a cocktail! Many cocktails. Like a box of vodka cocktail. He clears out the trunk of his car to make room for that evening’s going away present and chuck any crap into a Dumpster. Inside the bin he finds a curious thing: a dingy beaver hand puppet. Without thinking about it too much, he scoops up the puppet, puts it on and drives off to oblivion in the form of a cheap motel room with basic cable. Don’t forget the booze.

It might’ve been the vodka mixing with his pills. I might’ve been Walter was so distraught at losing all sense of self. It might’ve been the eventual botched suicide attempt. Hell, it might’ve been the bonk on the head when the TV fell over on him. Whatever the reason, when Walter wakes from his stupor, the puppet is talking to him. To him. The Beaver. And what the Beaver has to say to Walter makes some good sense.

So Walter wants to escape his funk, reconnect with his family and get his business back on its feet? The Beaver tells him that what’s been working has not been working and some drastic changes are in order. You have a wife, kids and employees to connect with, and your voice has been muted by your blackness, Black. So why not let the Beaver speak for Walter, get across all his concerns and fears and maybe be a mouthpiece simply to voice…Walter’s voice. His true, long lost voice. So crazy it just might work; nothing else has.

“Whaddya say, sport…?”

It’s of public record that Mel Gibson is mentally ill—bipolar disorder, to be specific—which may or may not excuse his very public acts of antisocial behavior over the past few years. While watching The Beaver it is virtually impossible to separate Gibson’s f*ck-ups and the f*cked-up-ness of Walter Black’s turbid life. One could make a very valid argument that The Beaver was made as an apology from Gibson for his bad behavior. Also, his performance as Walter/Beaver might also be construed as an attempt towards recovery. Public therapy, if you will. Illustrate to the curious rubberneckers that, hey, I f*cked up. I’m f*cked up. And it looks like this.

That being said, maintaining objectivity watching The Beaver—separating the actor from the role—is a Herculean task. This movie dropped not longer after Mel’s failing to play well with others, and the whole show is shrouded by this turn of events. This was the major grumble surrounding this flick. At first glance, The Beaver could rightly be seen as an obvious cover/exposé towards Gibson’s troubles made manifest in cinemas around the country. I however think that this mass exercise in schadenfreude reflected audiences’ already wobbly notions about mental illness. There’s this irrational—one may say crazy—fear that mental illness is contagious, like the flu. You don’t wanna get any of that on ya. Yet folks still slow down to see the car wreck. So how much of The Beaver‘s maligned rep was based on it being a lackluster film, Mel’s open letter to America or very small bamboo shoots under well-heeled American fingernails?

Not sure. But keep in mind: The Beaver is a movie first.

All right. Had to get that out there. Thanks for your patience. Now…

Once you’ve shaken away the cobwebs and unpopped kernels from your skull (there you go), we can get to the meat of the matter: The Beaver as film. I gotta say, after 70-plus installments here at RIORI, and good chunk of them comedies, The Beaver is far and away the darkest comedy I’ve ever reported on. It’s black comedy, almost charcoal. C’mon, when the opening montage is a harrowing day-to-day take on the misfirings of a clinical depressive ending in two botched suicide attempts only to have Bucky Beaver as newly appointed life coach, you understand where the writer wanted to take you. And it only gets more bizarre from there on out.

Now I’ll admit my mindset going about watching this pastiche was not unlike the unwashed masses’. I’m a fan of the Mad Max movies, and the first two Lethal Weapon installments were a lot of goofy fun. And let’s not forget the epic Braveheart, best pic for 1995 (Oscars matter for some, but not me really. Minus the statue, Braveheart is a kick-ass film, so much so it inspired Scotland in earning its independence. Really). But I was also curious to see how Gibson was going to pick up the shattered fragments of his career. I wasn’t anticipating him to screw the pooch; he’d done that well enough in real life. I wanted to see how post-assh*le Gibson carried a new movie.

He did it quite well.

The Beaver might’ve been released a little too soon for a public image, but it was rather canny on Gibson’s part to tackle this kind of role with his rep still mired in a swamp of bad publicity. Doubtless this was still weighing on the audiences’ collective minds, too. Regardless, Gibson’s acting prowess has never been better. Unquestionably for his Walter, Mel had a very deep well to dip from. Of course he was drawing from recent events, but in the film his actions and executions are never so blunt. You can actually drum up sympathy for a charter portrayed by an (alleged) anti-Semite. And you don’t feel dirty for it. I know, it takes a compassionate, empathetic mind to go with that. I have my bias. I fessed up back in the Silver Linings Playbook installment that I have bipolar disorder, so I guess I already have the proper frame of mind ready to watch and understand a movie like The Beaver.

Going with the car wreck analogy, watching Walter fumble through the film with a goddam plushie on his arm—the voice of reason, no less—demands attention. It’s so damned weird you can’t help but watch, and I ain’t talking about just the movie, either. I’d like to believe that some aspect of The Beaver’s appeal stems from the audience just waiting for Mel to crack up again. I know I did. And how ludicrous is that anyway? The whole thing is scripted and directed to make Walter walk the plank, not William Wallace. It’s kind of like with the movie Apollo 13; you know the astronauts get home safely, but the film is cut in such a way that you can’t help suspend your beliefs.

The Beaver works on that level, too, but in reverse. We know Mel’s f*cked up aboveboard. We don’t know Walter’s ultimate fate. You gotta believe that director Foster (who did a pretty good job all things considered) used Mel’s scrapes to push the story along. It might have been a little too deliberate, and any allusion comes across with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer smashing a watermelon (yes, a Gallagher reference. If you can think of a better metaphor call my agent. Just let me get one first). Still, couched in Gibson’s performance, and not necessarily his public fallout, The Beaver manages to hold its own pretty well. The whole damn thing would tear apart at the seams without Mel and his furry alter-ego riding point. Thanks to his conviction, The Beaver could either be extremely belittling to depressive or complete, f*cking genius.

Enough woolgathering. Let’s screw the nuts and bolts together. Big surprise but this is yet another character study, then again not really. Kinda hard to spin a tale about someone suffering from depression without examining their character. And boy is Walter a character. But not really. The first act establishes Walter’s predicament, and briskly rolls along into his new role, or what looks like his new psychosis. We see the Beaver as the “new Walter,” but really it’s the old Walter with a fresh coat of paint. We’re led to believe that the Beaver represents Walter’s true inner psyche, but since we’re given very little backstory (by the Beaver, no less) about Walter’s downward spiral, all we know is the Beaver outright. We have a character playing a character playing a character. But despite all this circular illogic, Gibson’s acting has never been better. Sure, post-puppet he doesn’t play like a depressive. Instead Walter seems to manifesting a split personality. But that personality is vibrant, funny and compelling. Scary even. And Gibson spins it with equal parts humanity, vulnerability and enough verve to make the hardened racist-Mel hater allow pause.


Again, a lot Walter’s plight is too deliberate. Mel might be good, but he only makes the best of what he’s given. Now keep in mind his backstory against the movie, which might raised a cocked brow as to the sincerity of his acting proper; The Beaver could be viewed as Mel’s public apology, or possibly the best mental illness PSA ever cut (e.g.: the Today show scene). With that there’s a lot of opportunities for obvious symbolism cloaked in being clever. There’s lot of pushing the issues beyond Walter’s coping mechanism. His failing marriage, his checking out as a dad and his crumbling toy empire. There are waaay to many touchés; too many internal barbs poking at Walter’s past failings. Twisting the dagger, downplaying Walter’s issues. All of these points in the storyline have this before-and-after dynamic between scenes so you get kind of a multiple “icebox moments” (the whole kitchen table/ TV scene is a good example). It’s a lot of subtle hand-holding, like director Foster had an overly sensitive grasp on the story. As if the audience either needed training wheels to be made aware how tenuous Walter’s grip is on his “new life” with his family. It’s a little insulting.

And to use the term “insulting” regarding Foster’s steady hand is mildly fitting and a bit confusing. Inappropriate even. Foster’s not ignorant of how to shoot a film about “a mind out of joint.” Her directorial debut was a small film called Little Man Tate. Maybe you’ve seen it. In the film Foster portrayed a single mom whose son was a prodigy. You know the kind. Accelerated in school yet still a boy with all the growing up issues that bookend that. Brains before maturity and all it offers of denies.

The Beaver is the other side of the fence. Chemically imbalanced rather than advanced intellectually. Yeah, we know the general public is fascinated with genius, as much they are repelled by emotional problems. Tate was thoughtful, sober and had more than a few warm fuzzes. The Beaver by contrast is nettlesome (look it up; I’m running low on adjectives), and its sparse warmth is hard-won and fragile. It’s like Foster wanted it both ways here; sweet and sour. Too bad The Beaver is more the latter than the former. The whole kid gloves thing.

Beyond Foster’s unaware prejudice, what I personally found engaging about The Beaver was its spin on the whole “crazy is contagious” undercurrent. Here the prejudice was put to good use, as far as driving the plot. To me, the star of the show was Anton Yelchin’s Porter. Him keeping tabs on his dad’s crazy, logging all his issues and making damn sure not to go down that route. And all the time banging his head against a wall. Literally. Across the span of 90 minutes, we watch Porter categorically dismiss his nutty father, yet himself manifest symptoms (beyond the head banging sans a Quiet Riot soundtrack) of bipolar disorder. The clipped speech, the lashing out, making impulsive decisions, rapid cycling. And the whole head banging thing. Did I mention that? Such behavior echoes the whole “sins of the father” dynamic. Curiously enough, it’s the one piece of symbolism in The Beaver that isn’t written out for the audience since it crawls across the duration of the movie.

What makes this parallel work is thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s character Norah, the supposed unattainable girl. Over the course of the story, another parallel’s established. In contrast to Walter and Meredith’s fragile and frigid marriage, Porter and Norah’s relationship (although platonic at first) possessed the emotional give-and-take that has been so lacking in the former. There’s genuine warmth here, doubtless due to Lawrence’s magnetism as an actor. To use a cliche, Norah brings out the best in Porter, which he naturally botches due to his implied antisocial tendencies. And BTW, doesn’t “porter” mean “carrier?” Like he’s got the potential crazy gene just under the surface?

So it’s implied there’s a yin/yang analogy between Walter and Porter. Unlike Porter and Norah’s burgeoning relationship—and this movie’s all about relationships, warped as they may get. A beaver puppet gaffer-taped to Mel Gibson’s arm being the most obvious—what Walter and Meredith has is a very strained couplehood. The troubles are only magnified by the obvious fact that Gibson and Foster have weak chemistry. On a technical side, it feels like Foster would rather be behind the camera for The Beaver. For a good portion of the movie, her Meredith’s renewing relationship with Walter gets sidelined for Porter’s sub story, which is a tad more palatable than their struggling to pick up the pieces. That line, “Black, party of two” speaks volumes.

Even though I’ve given The Beaver an overall positive (though sterile) review, it’s the final act of the show I took a real issue with. We go down the rabbit hole. Hard. This might’ve been the stuff that sent the movie straight into the pooper and out unclean for Standard material.

After 75 minutes of depression, displacement, mania and wounded family disfunction, we get fed just plain bizarre. What I alluded to earlier comes to the fore here. Jarring questions slap the audiences’ brainpan. Is Walter merely depressed? Does he have some sort of personality displacement? Or is he REDACTED? The fallout is disturbing and clubs us over the head so suddenly, so strangely we are left to question that was what we saw what we saw? The heavy-handed humor about mental illness we got served gets clipped off so sharply it went against the whole message of the movie, convoluted that it ended up becoming. This was the only real pooch-screw in an otherwise compelling and at times enjoyable movie. I’d like to say more, but my dislike of spoilers means REDACTED Deal.

I think I’ll cut it off here. I’ve already chewed The Beaver into wood chips at a metaphysical level to death. Just two more things about how polite America may or may have not chewed on The Beaver, so to speak.

It’s no surprise that the masses did not “get” nor wanted to “get” this movie. The screed from AllMovie was less than charitable and might’ve been viewed to reinforce the insensitivity the nation has towards people suffering from “issues.” Read it. I refer to that site all the time when considering weighing opinions. I found it cold, harsh and had nary a whit of anything remotely positive regarding The Beaver. They gave it two stars out of five. What’s curious is that the personal reviews’ accumulated points earned the movie three-and-half. This could be the car wreck theory in action, but I don’t know.

Second, if all my bullish*t sounds like some reactionary defense of Mel Gibson, it’s not. C’mon. Drunk driving? Racist epithets? I may be liberal in thought and action, but even I have limits (a few, but some). In the final analysis, manic depression or not, Mel was behaving like yet another over-privileged, ego-driven, Hollywood shill who felt that the rules didn’t blah blah blah. Whatever. I’m in no place to judge. Mel’s really not up the cross.

He just filmed it.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. There’s half a good (however flawed) movie here. The other half—and don’t take my word for it this time here—is a rather interesting way of cleaning out one’s closet. Now let it go and watch The Road Warrior again for Mel wreaking some real damage.

Stray Observations…

  • “She got me out of the Dumpster.”
  • Cute metaphor with the leak. Empty pillow, absent wife, house going to sh*t. Okay, sometimes the obvious crap works.
  • “It’s very big in Sweden.”
  • It’s oddly comforting to hear the grumbling of Max Rockatansky again, even if he’s all fuzzy.
  • “I’ve been doing yoga…”
  • Didja notice the bit wid’ da insulation, mate?
  • “I don’t want to celebrate 20 years of marriage with a puppet.” Not outside the bedroom anyway. Zing!
  • Walter? Walker? Mad Max allusion? The most lightweight installment of the original series? Right, I’m reaching.
  • “People seem to love a train wreck…when it’s not happening to them.”

Next Installment…

Edward Norton has one more day before hard time beckons at the 25th Hour.

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