The Beaver

The Beaver. Starring Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence and Anton Yelchin. Directed by Jodie Foster. 91 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sexual references and coarse language).

A serious film about Depression (with a credit note at the end that Depression is a family matter, that it is important for a family to be part of the treatment of this mental illness).

We are introduced to Walter Black, married with two children, who has sunk into depression and cannot find a way out.  His family don’t know how to respond.  His wife loves him but finds it more difficult to cope with his erratic behaviour and mood swings.  His teenage son resents his father, fearing that he could become like him and noting behaviours that he will try to avoid in his own life.  His little boy is closing in on himself.  Walter compares himself to his father with resentment and senses that he is a loser.  Workers in his toy company are bewildered.  He finally gets to his limit and contemplates suicide.

Audiences who may be wary of mental illness may find the rest of the film puzzling or may try to laugh it off.  Some psychiatrists may be wary of the method shown for dealing with the depression.  Most of us in between may be absorbed by the struggle of a man trying to deal with his inner conflicts and his alternate self by the use of a puppet on his left hand, a toy beaver, who takes on a life and voice and accent, not of its own, but of an outer Walter Black who can argue with the inner Walter and evoke responses from others via the beaver.

One method used in counselling in the past was that of the two chairs.  The client speaks from one chair and moves to the other to answer and continue a dialogue that can reveal inner puzzles and struggles.  The Beaver seems a variation on this method.

There is a parallel sub-plot (which gets more attention, perhaps, than it needs to when we want to focus on Walter).  Porter, the teenage son, is also a troubled young man.  One of his activities at school is to write assignments for fellow students (at a price).  In that way, he becomes a beaver writer and voice for the students.  This comes to a dramatic head when the valedictorian asks him to write her speech.  She also has problems, especially with her brother having over-dosed.  She has expressed herself in vivid graffiti but has retreated into herself in ways similar to Walter’s withdrawal.

There is a great deal of personal drama for the family and their inability to cope with depression and with the beaver, except for the little boy who is able to communicate better with his father.

There are no easy answers to these problems but there is hope (which, for many tastes may be too much of American feel-good in the final images).  However, there is some irony as Walter Black and the beaver are shown as becoming momentary media celebrities with TV and radio interviews (with Matt Lauer and Jon Stewart as themselves on their talk shows).  A recent film that would serve as a companion film is Helen, with Ashley Judd as an academic who struggles with depression.

Mel Gibson is very good as Walter Black, showing the ravages of depression, using a different voice for the beaver, dialoguing with himself.  Jodie Foster, who also directed the film, plays Walter’s wife.  Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence portray the young man and young woman.

The performance stands on its own as a piece of acting, without reference to Mel Gibson’s own life, his beaver-like rants and his desperate behaviour. They  are not part of the film itself, although as many would note, Walter Black, in some ways, may not be all that far from the real Mel Gibson, which does make it interesting that he chose at this stage of his life to act in this particular film.Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Released: 4th August 2011.

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