SXSW 2011 Review: THE BEAVER
Editor's note: This review was originally posted as a SXSW Film Festival review on March 17, 2011.
It seems that living the American dream comes with pitfalls we do not normally see coming or talk about. Having a family, a successful career, and the impression of the “perfect” life seems to turn from something to revel in and become more of a box that imprisons you.
THE BEAVER delves into the crumbling world of a man who seemed to “have it all” and then decides to check out of his life, unable to do more than sleep his days away. Despite his physical presence, he is emotionally absent and his wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), finally throws him out of the house. Walter (Mel Gibson) finds himself holed up in a hotel room with a bottle of liquor, his issues, and a beaver puppet he came across earlier in the night.
After a nearly successful attempt at ending his own life, Walter wakes up, beaver puppet in hand, with the puppet talking to him as though it were an entity independent from his own body and voice. The puppet’s voice differs from Walter’s, speaking with a British accent, and it has a much more domineering presence than Walter’s now vacant personality. It is clear that Walter has reached a new level in his psychosis, but one wonders if this new element will work to help or further hinder Walter on his path to getting back to his life.
The beaver becomes an intermediary for Walter and it is declared that Walter will now allow it to speak and live for him as he attempts to reengage in his life. Each member of Walter’s family has a different reaction to accepting him, and his new addition, back into their lives. Meredith is skeptical, but clearly in love with her husband and willing to do what it may take to get their life back. Walter’s youngest son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) immediately accepts the puppet, as his child view of the world allows him to simply view the puppet as a new playmate. Walter’s eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin) feels betrayed that after finally make the decision to force Walter out of the house so they could move on with their lives, he is invited right back in without hesitation.
The effect of their father’s illness has clearly taken its toll on his family, despite their attempts to keep up appearances. A distracted Meredith consistently drives past Henry when picking him up, noting that he just “blends in,” while Porter takes great pains to make sure he does blend in. Porter’s biggest fear is turning into his father and reacts by making sure he has no definitive character traits, preferring to be a blank slate that takes on the voice of others rather than allowing his own to ever shine through. When interacting with classmate and love interest Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), we are able to see bits of Porter’s true personality and realize that he is not simply an angry and frustrated teenager.
The film’s concept is lofty and one that most people would dismiss as simply too strange or weird. But dealing with mental illness and its effect has no standard and the idea of needing an inanimate object to express oneself is an interesting concept that Gibson plays with brutal honesty and dares you to look away. It is hard to write the situation off as simply terrible or ridiculous because mental illness is terrible and can seem ridiculous to those not suffering from the affliction. Watching his family deal with the loss of their patriarch is just as painful and watching Walter struggle with getting his life back.
Gibson gives a dynamic and layered performance as a man having a major life crisis. Essentially playing two characters with contrasting personalities at the same time, he switches back and forth between these two extremes seamlessly, delivering a performance that is frighteningly captivating. Yelchin yet again proves that he is one to watch with a performance that hinges so much on his expressions and reactions as Porter is too scared to ever say or admit how he truly feels for fear that it will only lead to becoming something he doesn’t want to be.
As the film’s director, it is clear that Foster understood the tricky nature of the story and worked to make sure the elements surrounding the collapse of this family were subtle and worked to highlight each character’s struggle. The look of the film is very realistic, making the presence of such an odd element like a beaver puppet stand out all the more and reminding us that, even though the Blacks may seem like an average family, they are dealing with something that is anything but.
THE BEAVER tackles a difficult subject matter, but does so with engaging performances. The film tells a tragic story and never shies away from doing just that. The tonal shift is sudden, but worked to highlight the fact that mental illness is never something to be taken lightly and things can turn on a dime at a moment’s notice. A hard film that may not resonate with everyone, it is one that is hard to shake even hours after leaving the theater.