*The Beaver (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
Full disclosure: I very nearly hate Mel Gibson. I've heard the tapes and I'm comfortable in the knowledge that he's a mentally disturbed, entitled, violent, anti-Semitic misogynist and a racist. I didn't even want to review this film. I couldn't imagine what possible illusion he could pull off to make me look at his face with anything but contempt, not only for him as an actor but for any movie that would have him.
Imagine my disbelief when, 10 minutes into The Beaver, I found myself utterly captivated. Either by dint of his own self-loathing, serendipitous screenwriting or Gibson and director/bestie Jodie Foster's gut instinct for cinematic redemption, the film allows — even invites — those biases and overcomes them with acknowledgment, charm and delicacy.
Gibson's character, Walter Black, became CEO of his father's toy company a couple of years ago and hasn't been the same since. Overwhelmed, he's sunken into a depression that borders catatonia, with suicidal thoughts. He's completely checked out at home, ignoring his wife (Foster) and two kids, the older of whom (Anton Yelchin) has taken to banging his head against his bedroom wall.
Foster's camera holds forever on Black's bedraggled face; these aren't close-ups, they're mug shots. He tries to hang himself with a shower curtain, then opts to plummet from his hotel balcony. At the risk of sounding morbid, audience members who hate Gibson as a man might even welcome this rock bottom with more than a little schadenfreude.
Suddenly, Black's childhood hand puppet, a beaver, begins talking to him, taking on Black's affected Cockney accent. "The beaver" tells him to get his life together, offering to let Black fade away completely while the puppet interacts with society for him.
Through the puppet, Black comes alive again. He's a hit at work and at home, though his older son remains skeptical, and for good reason: There's nothing about this behavior that's healthy.
Meanwhile, Yelchin's Porter takes up with popular girl Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). She opens up about her brother's death, they tag a wall and get arrested together, and Porter works out his daddy issues, and it all takes up way too much screen time. While Yelchin is a real talent, Lawrence seems wooden and not altogether committed to her role — a dangerous misstep for a fast-rising star.
But when we get back to Gibson and Foster as the married couple alternately enjoying and torturing themselves over this last glimpse of a connection, the screen is electric. The Beaver is a miracle shot from half-court. It serves as both a rumination on the actor's behavior — Gibson's Black and the puppet/narrator make it clear throughout that the man behind the puppet is nothing less than broken — and as a forceful reminder of his power as a thespian.
He was always best as the cad, the live wire who could make you laugh even as he's running from an exploding building. I'll never be able to watch that Gibson again, but I could watch this one for hours. Needle-threading scripts like this are one in a million, and the odds of it working were so small to begin with. (The writer, Kyle Killen, was an unknown when this script topped the Black List, an unofficial survey of the best unproduced scripts circulating agents' desks, in 2008.)
So this could be a great swan song or a rebirth. Either way, it's quite special.