The Beaver

Jodie Foster’s odd comedy drama The Beaver arrives tainted by the reek of scandal and opprobrium. Knowing what we know about star Mel Gibson's real-life character (or at least the version reported in the tabloids) it’s difficult to cheer him on as his Walter Black suffers through a prolonged psychiatric collapse with the help of a furry brown hand-puppet.

Foster’s third film as a director (and her first since 1995s family drama Home For The Holidays) The Beaver opens as Gibson’s floundering toy-executive Walter falls headlong into a black pit of depression. His clenched wife Meredith (Foster) has had enough of Walter’s soul-devouring despair and kicked him out of the home they share with their two sons. While filling his car boot with bottles of booze, Walter discovers the eponymous puppet in a carpark skip and takes it with him. When later, following a series of slapstick suicide attempts, he wakes up in a hotel room he finds the puppet stuck to his arm, talking to him in a voice that sounds like Ray Winstone gargling with broken glass.

From that point on, the scraggy brown puppet is never off Walter’s hand, creating a buffer between the flailing man and the people around him. He finds that this self-cure puppetry offers him a respite from his despair, allowing him to break old bonds and form new ones, with his young son (Riley Thomas Stewart), his desperate wife Meredith (Foster herself) and his employees at his failing company. The only person who cannot accept the beaver is Walter’s estranged eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin), a high-school student who has developed a lucrative side-line in writing other student’s exam papers. Porter is worried that he will inherit his father’s depression, until a blossoming romance with graffiti artist turned cheerleader Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) offers a chink of light.

If The Beaver sounds impossibly cluttered and implausible, that’s because it is. Under Foster’s austere direction, Kyle Killen’s script (originally an out-and-out comedy vehicle for Steve Carell), becomes a rather weighty fable about the Western world’s overreliance on happy pills, self-help books and mid-life collapse. But traces of the Killen’s comic intentions remain, riddling the story with contrivances and distractions which, over time, go to undermine the more serious truths that Foster is attempting to uncover. It doesn't help that everyone has an occupation that acts as a signpost to their character. Walter the toy-builder is reconstructed by a toy, his topsy-turvy wife designs roller-coasters, his eldest son is so afraid of who he really is, he specialises in writing his illicit essays in an exact match to the buyer's writing style.

Carrying echoes of James Stewart’s dipso imaginary-friend Harvey and Craig Gillespie’s melancholy sex-doll allegory Lars & The Real Girl, The Beaver is a decidedly odd film but at its heart it is interesting, something rare enough during the blockbuster summer season. Not funny enough to be a comedy and lacking as a drama, Gibson himself is still the biggest obstacle standing between the film and a wider audience. But his performance is also the main reason why anyone should go see it: here is a man plagued by ugly demons playing a man plagued by ugly demons, delivering a dark, strange performance that very few actors would have the courage or skill to pull off.

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