Sunday, 8 January 2012

Film Review | The Beaver (2011)

Every now and again a film comes along that grabs my attention as soon as I first hear about it, to the point where I know I simply have to see it no matter what opinions might be levelled at it. The Beaver is one of those films. The film's highest of high concepts is a serious gamble on the part of director (and supporting actress) Jodie Foster, and casting Mel Gibson in the starring role hardly makes the film's success any more of a safe bet following his relatively recent fall from grace in the public eye.

Gibson plays Walter Black, the CEO of a formerly successful toy company who is suffering from serious depression. Following a failed suicide attempt after his wife (Foster) kicks him out, Walter develops an alternate personality which manifests itself through a beaver hand puppet. Despite seeming to many to be a sign that he has finally tipped over the edge into insanity, initially the beaver (as it is simply known) helps Walter to fix many of the fractured areas of his life, including his relationship with his wife and younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), although not his older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) who is exhibiting some troubling behaviour of his own. As the beaver takes more and more control over Walter, however, it becomes apparent that his influence over Walter's life is not as positive as it first appears.

The Beaver is undoubtedly one of those films that will divide opinion, and whether you enjoy it or not depends a great deal on whether you buy into its premise. The way I see it, if you assume that The Beaver takes place entirely in the real world that you and I inhabit, you almost certainly won't be able to get a lot out of it. Walter's character arc at the very least must be seen as almost entirely allegorical, and to view it any differently is almost obstinate on the part of the audience. The puppet on Walter's hand is a lot more than a quirky device through which to demonstrate his mental instability - it represents Walter's suppression of one part of his personality and allowance of another to take control, and the ramifications, both reparative ad destructive, of doing so. Once you accept this, The Beaver comes across as one of the most intelligent films of last year.

Gibson's performance as Walter Black is, in short, excellent. His fall into depression is entirely believable whilst being neither melodramatic nor ridiculous, with a subtlety a million miles from the in-your-face instability of Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon. From the moment Walter allows the beaver to take over, Gibson sells it brilliantly to the audience, playing things entirely straight and almost taking on two separate parts, endowing the puppet with a hybrid cockney-Australian accent which is questioned by other characters but (pleasingly) is never explained.

Yes, there are a few laughs to be had - let's face it, Gibson with a manky rodent on the end of his arm was always going to be at least a little funny, and a sex scene between Gibson, Foster and the beaver is awkwardly hilarious and sold perfectly by both actors. But this is a dramatic story and Gibson's excellent turn makes sure we know this all the way through. A scene in which Walter and his wife go for an anniversary meal, with Walter back in control for the first time since the beaver entered his life, ends awkwardly and is one of the most emotionally raw scenes in the entire film.

Yelchin too shows himself again to be a talent worth keeping an eye on after proving his action chops in Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation. His performance here is strong and sells effectively the subplot of Porter's initially unlikely relationship with fellow high school student Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), as well as his intense desire to be as removed from his father as possible.

The Beaver's key fault comes from its relatively contracted running time of just under ninety minutes. Foster's direction feels controlled and assured, but certain aspects of the story occasionally come across as a bit hurried or underdeveloped. Walter's life prior to the film is narrated within the first few minutes of the film as a montage, leading us almost immediately to his being under the beaver's control. This makes it initially a little tricky to connect with Walter as a character, as the audience has had very little time to get to know him prior to this key event in his life. Porter and Norah's relationship also feels lacking in depth at times, suggesting it may have benefited from further screen time to add a little more authenticity.

As I said, if you buy into the premise of The Beaver, there's an awful lot of good to get out of it. If you can't accept the concept behind the story then it's unlikely you'll be able to appreciate many of its impressive attributes. Don't expect a lighthearted look at depression and mental instability either - a wacky, wisecracking sidekick this beaver certainly is not. But allow the film the chance to take you through its allegorical tale and what you'll find is a highly original, well made and poignant piece of cinema.


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