MOVIES | Thanks to Mel Gibson, “The Beaver” has teeth

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You’re forgiven if the thought of Mel Gibson speaking through a beaver puppet for the better part of an hour and a half inspires a cynical chuckle. It’s a ridiculous concept, to be sure, but in its execution The Beaver is anything but: casting married life, fatherhood, and mental illness in a light that’s as poignant as it is eccentric.

This comedy-drama—with emphasis on the drama—centers on Walter Black (Gibson), a toy company executive whose work and family lives have crumbled due to a losing battle with clinical depression. Walter has tried every solution, to no avail, and having finally reached his breaking point, Walter sets out to kill himself.

Enter The Beaver, a ratty hand puppet Walter finds in a Dumpster moments before his attempted suicide. As Walter sits perched at his motel balcony, ready to end it all, the puppet—the Clarence to Walter’s George Bailey—“comes alive,” startling our distraught hero back from the ledge. After saving Walter in the immediate sense, The Beaver explains that he has come to fix Walter’s broken life.

And for a while, The Beaver does just that. Walter sends out cards to his family and colleagues, explaining that what appears to be a silly puppet is actually a therapist-prescribed means of distancing himself from the negative aspects of his personality. Sure enough, Walter’s relationships improve and his business starts booming; but this newfound happiness deteriorates as it becomes clear that Walter’s so-called therapy is, in actuality, psychosis.

In light of Walter’s careening mental state and its repercussions, the hilarity of the premise—of Gibson talking to himself in a Cockney accent—quickly turns serious and even morbid. What begins as novelty enthralls, and we find ourselves investing in the absurdity.

The film’s power is largely due to screenwriter Kyle Killen’s bold script, which topped the 2008 Black List of the most-liked unproduced screenplays. Killen’s skill shines through here, as he threads the tricky complexities of suicide and mental health into a narrative that is both dark and funny, affecting and bizarre.

But the film’s success owes also to director Jodie Foster’s realization of this script. There’s a candor in her approach that acknowledges our expectation but works to redirect it. What we’re left with, then, is an unmitigated earnestness in the direction, one that is fleshed out by Foster’s performance as an actor, along with those of Gibson and Anton Yelchin, who plays Walter’s older son.

Gibson’s delivery, though, is what The Beaver ultimately hinges on. The slightest indiscretion could have derailed the picture, but Gibson never once hints at mockery, playing both sides of Walter Black’s fractured psyche with total sincerity.

Founded in the offbeat and tackling delicate themes, The Beaver certainly won’t appeal to every moviegoer. Yet it is this very peculiarity, this atypicality, that sets The Beaver above its indie ilk and the summer blockbuster fare.