Beyond Redemption Case File #196: The Beaver
Is Mel Gibson beyond redemption? Is anyone? Will we ever be able to watch Gibson onscreen again without thinking of breathless threatening phone calls to ex-girlfriends, drunk driving, or anti-Semitic screeds? It’s a testament to how badly Gibson has crossed the boundaries of what’s considered forgivable that earlier controversies that could easily have destroyed his career—like the furor that arose over the anti-Semitism in The Passion Of The Christ and a 2006 drunk-driving arrest where he called an officer “sugartits” and expressed a strong conviction that Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world—now seem minor compared to the events of 2010. Last year, tapes leaked in which Gibson threatened, among other things, to murder the mother of his child as part of an unhinged rant that managed to offend every ethnic group, gender, and sexuality in existence in rapid succession.
It wasn’t surprising to discover that Gibson is full of rage, violent, incapable of self-control, bigoted, sexist, and seriously lacking in communication skills for a successful, Oscar-winning director. We knew that already. Those are now core elements of the Mel Gibson brand. It was the ferocity and force of Gibson’s anger and the shadowy depths of his rage that were surprising. The tapes seemed to confirm everything negative that had ever been written or said about Gibson. Everyone knew Gibson was Hollywood crazy. You can get away with being Hollywood crazy. Heck, people romanticize and glamorize Hollywood crazy. But Gibson wasn’t just Hollywood crazy; he was crazy-crazy.
Gibson’s graceless swan dive into the depths of infamy caused problems for Jodie Foster, who had returned to the director’s chair following a 15-year break to helm The Beaver, a film about a man in need of spiritual redemption who learns that the only escape route from suicidal depression is communicating with the world solely through an Australian-accented beaver puppet. That’s going to be a bit of a tough sell under the best of circumstances. Pegging that concept to a man notorious for his violent, racist threats against the mother of his child is going to be even tougher. Accordingly, The Beaver made about a million dollars in its limited theatrical run despite all the attention it received.
Kyle Killen’s screenplay for The Beaver had been kicking around Hollywood for ages before Mel Gibson came onboard. It had developed a reputation as one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. Jim Carrey and Steve Carell were both slated to star at one point before Foster went in a radically different direction and cast her old Maverick costar as the film’s emotionally shattered protagonist, a once happy and successful father, husband, and toy-company big shot whose life has become unlivable. That casting makes sense, up to a point. Gibson is a man who has known pain and suffering, who understands intimately what it’s like to wake up in the morning feeling lost and hopeless. In fact, few people in show business know that feeling as well as Gibson.
The Beaver introduces Gibson as a man who once happily occupied the roles of husband, father, and businessman, but, as the narrator proclaims, “That man has gone missing.” The Beaver nails depression’s pervasive feeling of dislocation and emptiness when the narrator reflects of the protagonist, “It’s as if he died but didn’t have the good sense to take his body with him.” Gibson’s depression is existential rather than situational. We’re told he has tried just about everything to cure it: therapy, pills, cults, self-flagellation. Nothing works, so Gibson finds, if not comfort, than at least some respite from the pain of existence in constant sleep.
We’re also told that Gibson’s younger son (Riley Thomas Stewart) is what his teachers call “solitary,” while older son Anton Yelchin is so terrified of becoming his father that his room is festooned with Post-it notes articulating their similarities. He wants to know his enemy as intimately as possible so he can avoid following in his footsteps. Gibson’s wife, played by Foster, throws herself into engineering work to help her forget the loveless sham her marriage has become. This opening narration defies the old maxim to show, not tell. Each family member is defined by a single overriding quality: Gibson by an all-consuming sadness, Yelchin by incoherent rage, and Foster by brittle, willful obliviousness. (Stewart barely registers at all.)
The Beaver begins on a note of complete exhaustion, portraying Gibson’s family as an “Everybody Hurts” montage waiting to happen: The younger son is bullied at school, while Yelchin ghost-writes papers for other students because he’s too mired in self-loathing to be able to communicate in his own voice. Just barely holding it together takes all the energy Foster possesses. Gibson, meanwhile, has taken his depression as far as he possibly can, prompting the previously indulgent Foster to kick him out. Thankfully, redemption lies in the unlikeliest of places. While lurching about in a suicidal haze, Gibson finds a beaver hand puppet in a Dumpster and begins talking to himself through it in an Australian accent. Gibson needs someone, anyone, but he won’t let anyone close enough to hurt or help him; so he externalizes his interior monologue and tells himself that minor improvements to his life won’t work. The time for half-measures is gone. The Beaver tells Gibson that if he wants to save his life, he’ll have to blow up the whole bloody building.
Who hasn’t known that feeling and wondered if life has simply slid so hopelessly out of control that the only palatable option is to blow up everything up and start over again from scratch? That’s an extremely human impulse, but in The Beaver it leads to places where plausible human behavior is in short supply. The Beaver shifts tones constantly, oftentimes within the space of a single scene. Instead of choosing a tone, Foster chose them all. Depending on the moment and the scene, The Beaver is a demented psychodrama, a crowd-pleasing redemption fable, a painfully sincere drama, an American Beauty-like exploration of suburban angst, and a whimsical quirkfest.
Gibson immediately embarks upon a shockingly successful self-improvement-through-hand-puppetry regimen. The difference is dramatic and instant. In the earliest scenes, Gibson empties out his movie-star charisma so that there’s nothing there but a black hole, an infinite spiritual emptiness that consumes everything in his path. With the beaver puppet on his hand, however, Gibson becomes a new man. He picks up Stewart for school for apparently the first time in his life and makes a “memory box” for him. Foster is understandably a bit skeptical, but only for a moment. “Walter, what’s with the accent and the puppet?” she asks in altogether too reasonable a tone of voice. She’s quickly convinced when Gibson hands her a card insisting that what Gibson is using is a “prescription puppet” designed to put a barrier between the user and negative aspects of their personality they dislike, buying into the idea that Gibson hates himself to such an extent he needs to create a second, more appealing personality just so that he’ll be able to live with himself.
Meanwhile, Yelchin finds himself the recipient of a strange request when class president, cheerleader, and all-around overachiever Jennifer Lawrence asks him to write her graduation speech. Yelchin is immediately taken aback: Why would a brain like Lawrence need his help? But in true Robert McKee form, Lawrence isn’t at all what she seems. Though she appears perfect, she’s marked by her brother’s suicide and is suffering just as soulfully and photogenically as Yelchin. Lawrence exuded icy competence in her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone, but it can be hard to reconcile her hard-as-nails performance there and her soft-as-marshmallow-soufflé turn here. Lawrence delivers her overwritten lines in a bored monotone that matches up neatly with the dead-eyed, vacant expression she sports throughout the film. With Yelchin, she seems stuck in what feels like an extracted subplot from American Beauty, a film The Beaver often resembles to its eternal detriment.
Yelchin plays the only character not immediately won over by Gibson’s new beaver-puppet-centered personality. Foster welcomes Gibson back into her home and back into their bed. There’s even a single deeply disturbing shot of the beaver puppet in the shower with Foster and Gibson. The Beaver asks us to believe that Gibson and Foster—who have so little chemistry together they barely seem to belong to the same species—now enjoy a healthy and vibrant sex life thanks to the implementation of a therapeutic beaver puppet. Which points to one of the film’s biggest problems: The Beaver is only really a lived-in exploration of depression for about 10 minutes. Once Gibson begins communicating through the puppet, it becomes a strange wish-fulfillment fantasy for the morbidly depressed. Foster doesn’t just look at Gibson differently once he begins communicating exclusively through a puppet; she beams. Even Gibson’s co-workers at a toy company are delighted.
I should probably mention at this point that The Beaver, a film about a depressed man who gets a new lease on life when he begins communicating exclusively through a child’s hand puppet, is not a comedy. In fact, the film seems to find the notion that there is comedy to be gleaned from a grown man talking through a beaver puppet somewhat offensive. It isn’t enough for Gibson to win back his wife, his job satisfaction, and his life. He must also become a guru of sorts whose unconventional approach toward life lands him on the cover of magazines and a seat opposite Matt Lauer on The Today Show. The Beaver goes Being There big as Gibson becomes an international guru; but the bigger it gets, the less intimate it feels.
The Beaver doesn’t want to do the heavy lifting of showing how Gibson wins his company and family back—perhaps because there is no convincing way to illustrate how a beaver hand puppet can immeasurably improve a man’s life—so we skip giddily from one peak to another via the magic of an endless series of triumphant montages. The Beaver leans hard on Gibson’s movie-star charisma to sell the notion that the world would be charmed rather than disturbed by this strange man. But, as a movie star, Gibson isn’t the man he once was. When we look at Gibson’s post-success character in The Beaver, we don’t see a movie star whose charm can convince us of anything; we see the sad, desperate, broken man at the end of his tether the real-life Gibson has become. That works for the earliest scenes, but proves disastrous in the long haul. At this point, the “troubled” part of the “troubled superstar” equation negates the other half.
Halfway through the film, Foster takes Gibson out for their 20th anniversary and insists that the beaver not be part of the festivities. At that point, the breezy confidence Gibson has been exuding vanishes, replaced by abject terror. It is, if I might make a bold claim here, the most intensely emotional scene ever played out by a man, a woman, and a beaver puppet. It’s a powerful scene, but the grim emotional reckoning would have more impact if Gibson hadn’t made such a glib, easy evolution from a depressed, suicidal shell of a man to beloved kook. The Beaver takes itself way too seriously, but it doesn’t take depression seriously enough.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco