By now, we are all aware of the vitriol bubbling beneath Mel Gibson's movie star veneer. On screen, he is almost always a charismatic hero. But off-screen, we've seen firsthand his alcohol-induced demons and anti-Semitic politics.
Last year, his rage culminated in a series of threatening phone calls to his ex-girlfriend. Those calls leaked onto the Internet and subsequently delayed the release of Gibson's latest film, The Beaver.
That delay was a blessing in disguise. This film could not be arriving at a better time. With a cleaner slate Gibson seems more suited for his character Walter Black, a man trying to distance himself from the destructive parts of his personality.
Many worried that Gibson's off-screen problems would infect the film. However, if anything, they add even more emotional weight to his character and performance.
Sensitively directed by co-star Jodie Foster, The Beaver is a poignant portrait of a man reinventing himself in the wake of midlife depression. The film also follows his family members, none of whom are given short shrift by first-time screenwriter Kyle Killen - or the actors playing them. This is a provocative drama, rife with rich characters and candor.
The film begins with Walter at the end of his rope. It opens on a shot of him floating in a pool, wallowing in misery (much in the same way that Gibson wallowed in his alcohol-drowned sorrows). Hopelessly depressed, Walter sleepwalks through life at home and work. (Ironically, he is the CEO of a toy company - a place meant to bring joy). His depression becomes so infectious that his wife (Foster) kicks him out of the house, much to the delight of their bitter, angst-ridden teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin).
While tossing his belongings in a dumpster behind his hotel, Walter finds a beaver puppet peering at him beneath the refuse. That night, on the heels of a grim suicide attempt, the puppet speaks to Walter. In a cockney Australian accent, it convinces him to leave his old personality behind and adopt that of the beaver's.
Walter does exactly that, telling his family and colleagues that the puppet is part of a radical therapy program.
In lesser hands, this could have been an offensively eccentric character, but Gibson makes him completely believable and sympathetic. And Foster and screenwriter Killen never aim for cheap laughs at his expense. The humor comes naturally from the absurdity of the situation and, more specifically, the sight of the beaver puppet itself (which evokes the inanimate characters in Harvey and Lars and the Real Girl).
As Walter and the beaver, Gibson's performance brims with pathos, revealing a tender side he has never shown before - on or off-screen.
While he is certainly the star of the film, Gibson does not overshadow the supporting actors. As his resentful son, Anton Yelchin delivers an equally complex performance. Look at his eyes in the film. There is always a glimmer of hope for his father behind the anger and resentment towards him.
In the screenplay, Killen creates an interesting parallel between these two characters. As Walter hides behind his hand puppet, Porter hides behind his classmates, writing papers for them in their voices in an attempt to escape his reality.
This theme of taking refuge runs throughout the film. Porter's girlfriend Nora (tenderly played by Jennifer Lawrence) plunges into schoolwork to distract herself from her brother's death. And Jodie Foster's character also buries herself in work to avoid facing her husband's midlife crisis.
The Beaver may be a career revival for Gibson and Foster, but above all, it is a vital tale of depression, which, as the film shows, is not an individual problem but a family matter. Up to now, the film has been disappointing at the box office. Too bad, because it needs to be seen. It is not exactly the feel-good film of the summer. So, you may not dance out of the theater feeling great, but you'll leave with your eyes opened, sporting a new affinity for life.
The Beaver is playing for a limited time at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. So be sure to catch it before it's gone!