The Beaver is a film about depression. And rather than being good for what it’s about, sometimes a film is good for what it isn’t. The Beaver doesn’t go for the biographical explanation: Walter Black is simply depressed, whether it’s chemical or genetic, the result of a trauma – or a combination thereof. The Beaver doesn’t propose the “you can do it for someone you love”-solution: in the end, Walter watches his loved ones suffer, but he can only recover because he wants to.
Walter Black is Mel Gibson, and you can forget everything you know about Gibson’s public persona precisely because the film does not. It refers both to his ultraconservative Catholicism and to his paranoia, and then lets him be the character. Director and co-star Jodie Foster recognizes that what he does best is do nothing – which cuts to the heart of his depression. This illness manifests itself in many different ways, but at the center there is always a huge and increasingly attractive black hole. Depression is absence, is nothingness, is wordlessness. It’s the system shutting down. In the end, even the most basic tasks like staying awake are too much.
The Beaver doesn’t analyze this. It simply shows it, including its absurd extremes, like Walter falling asleep while a formal family picture is being taken.
And it also shows how a tiny, inexplicable spark, one that comes from deep within when Walter is at the end of the line, suddenly shows him a way out. He begins speaking through a hand puppet, a stuffed toy beaver, effectively creating a new persona that allows him to shed the old, depressed Walter. This sounds absolutely ridiculous, and in fact, the English accent this new person uses is a bit much, making Gibson sound like he’s channeling Michael Caine. But it works, not only for the fictional Walter, but also for the movie, probably because everyone involved knows what a ridiculous proposition this is.
The Beaver is a great showpiece for Gibson, but it wisely pairs his plight with that of his son, who is struggling to become his own man (and realistically, depression is indeed a family illness in many ways). Yelchin as Porter Black is very good, although many of his scenes are dangerously close to the cliché. Altogether, The Beaver is a very astute portrayal of a mental illness and its consequences.
THE BEAVER | Directed by Jodie Foster, with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence, Anton Yelchin (USA 2011) Documentary. Opens May 19