Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews The Beaver
The Beaver, much like the film’s protagonist, has been hiding from the ugly realities of life for the last six months – after a seemingly never-ending font of bad press for star Mel Gibson.
A lot of early industry murmurs focused on the parallels between the actor and his equally self-destructive character in the film. The comparisons are certainly interesting but, without the controversy, can The Beaver stand on its own two feet as one of the better indie offerings in a summer chock-full of high profile superhero films?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. While it’s certainly hard to fully ignore some of the more on-the-nose moments of actor/character crossover (specifically a disheveled-looking Gibson pouring Vodka on a television screen), The Beaver still manages to direct the audience away from the controversy and to the story at hand – that of clinically depressed Walter Black, family man and CEO of a flailing toy company, who spends the majority of his days asleep, on medications, or sleeping because of all the medications.
It's at Walter's lowest moment that the titular beaver puppet comes into the picture. The Beaver allows Walter to take back his life by speaking for him (in a British accent) and offering a safe distance between the ups and downs of everyday living: his failing company, estranged wife and resentful teenager - as well as his youngest son, who is routinely overlooked. However, even as Walter finds new life and success hiding behind The Beaver, it isn’t long before he realizes that while he may be up walking around, the Walter he wants to be still needs to wake-up.
On paper, a story like The Beaver could be laughable (we won't even get into the title) but coupled with some thoughtful and compelling direction from Jodie Foster, Gibson delivers an especially charming and believable performance. Some of more traditionally challenging scenes, where an actor has to engage in a back and forth with an inanimate object, are surprisingly successful – with subtle adjustments to his expression, Gibson breathes life into both The Beaver as well as the heartbreakingly empty and submissive Walter.
Similarly, Gibson and Foster (through the actor’s performance and the director’s composition) give The Beaver an actual physical presence – without it coming across as a gimmick. The puppet doesn’t just make things awkward for the characters, it genuinely helps to draw-out subtle emotions in the supporting cast as well as add an exclamation point to already complicated (or humorous) situations.
Foster, who has been somewhat off the grid the last five years, works double-duty on the film as Walter’s wife Meredith and delivers a great counter-point to Gibson’s closed-off and non-adversarial character. Similarly, the film spends a significant amount of time following the story of Walter’s older son, Porter (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) as he attempts to purge himself of any resemblance to his father before he heads-off to college at Brown University.
The film does a good job of providing a reason for the time dedicated to Porter’s story – and the side-narrative also gives the audience a well-deserved break from the main plot as well as brings in characters we wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see, specifically Norah (played by Jennifer Lawrence). Despite the fact that Norah isn’t directly affected by Walter’s shenanigans, she helps mirror his inner struggle – as she wrestles with her own inability to face the challenges of life. To their credit, both Lawrence and Yelchin offer-up great performances and manage to keep their senior-year storyline from falling into the same campy geek guy/popular girl conventions of a lot of films.
The performances and execution in The Beaver are on-point; however, the film is not without a few shortcomings. In general, the movie successfully chronicles Walter’s journey of self-acceptance and discovery, but at times gets bogged down in some over-the-top story beats that come across “cartoony” and could remind audiences of the overly-absurd set-up – the same one the actors have worked so hard to keep grounded and real.
The Beaver is at its best when it stays grounded, because the characters (and subsequently the performances) are deep and interesting - but once in awhile the filmmakers must have felt as though audiences needed more. An example: when one of Walter’s toy creations becomes a smash hit, it isn’t enough to just see the sold-out store shelves – The Beaver himself has to become a cultural icon for audiences to get that the puppet can’t actually bring about a true recovery.
Similarly, while the film succeeds in earning its emotional climax, The Beaver doesn’t exactly handle Walter’s descent into madness as carefully (or convincingly) as it needs to in order for the dramatic climax to be equally successful. Instead, while the final act of the film is certainly compelling from moment to moment, it’s not as carefully crafted as what came before, ultimately rocketing the main plot forward while leaving some story threads unresolved.
A few slips in the build-up of the overarching narrative still can’t undercut the captivating performances, engaging characters, and great thematic material explored in the film. The Beaver is a unique and thoughtful project that showcases a charming, as well as unconventional, character journey. And, despite how you feel about the man, it's also one of Gibson’s best roles to date.
If you’re still on the fence about The Beaver, check out the trailer below:
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The Beaver is now playing in wide release.