Wednesday, 24 August 2011

DVD/Blu-Ray Review: The Beaver

“Everyone likes a train wreck, especially one they’re not in”

Directed By Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Riley Thomas Stewart, Cherry Jones
An executive deals with his spiralling mental illness by adopting a beaver hand puppet as his sole means of communicating.
I have a lot of history with Mel Gibson, in that I’ve followed his career from the very beginning. He’s starred in at least two of my favourite all time films; Mad Max 2 and Lethal Weapon. I used to have lively “debates” with my Dad about the quality of Gibson’s acting. I would always be on the defensive, pointing out scenes of worth, like the “suicide” scene in Lethal Weapon and Gibson’s incredible performance of a guy that really looks as if he’s going to pull that trigger. My Dad would always counter with the wide eyed acting in the second “suicide” scene; “Do you really wanna jump? Well, do ya?”. Mel Gibson’s performance in The Beaver is his best yet. There was a danger that an actor in this role would go overboard, but Mel never does.
Sadly, many reviews for The Beaver seem to be concerned with Gibson’s off-screen issues - you know the whole "Mad Mel goes nuts on the phone" thing. I’m reviewing a movie here, not a star’s personal life. If you want that, read The National Enquirer.
I’ll be honest with you, when I first learnt of this project, I was stunned; was Mel Gibson really going to return to acting with this story? What a gamble, after his success at directing. When I saw the film, I could see that it was the perfect role for any actor, but it was a role crafted for Gibson. What is mainly interesting for me is the way in which the film has as much to do with the rest of Walter Black’s family as it has to do with Walter. So, whilst Walter is the main character, the parallel story about his son Porter, played by Anton Yelchin, is just as interesting.
Yelchin turns in another great performance as a son that looks upon his father with fear, fear that he might turn out exactly the same. This fear manifests itself when Porter writes down all the character traits that he and his father share, on a number of post-it labels. Porter has a sense of empathy that allows him to get in his fellow class mate’s heads and writes schoolwork for them in a style that emulates the pupil. This comes to a head when he is approached by head cheerleader Norah, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Up until this point, Porter has seen Norah as unattainable and unapproachable, but Norah hides her own secret. Their relationship is hampered not only by his father, but Porter’s brutally honest appraisal of what a person is burying in their psyche. Sometimes, an honest and forthright opinion is not welcome. Whilst watching the end of the story arc between Porter and Norah, I saw Norah as another Meredith. The direction of the scene was exemplary.
Jodie Foster plays the long suffering wife and mother, Meredith. Foster plays her with just the right amount of nuanced reactions that reflects a woman that has tried to make do but has now found the final straw in the form of a hand puppet and her husband’s willingness to talk through it. Foster has a couple of exceptional scenes with Gibson that highlight the tragic nature of Black’s illness.
Gibson’s scenes with Riley Thomas Stewart (who plays his younger son Henry) are amongst the most heart-warming in the movie and might cause a tear or two. Even when Black is communicating through the Beaver, the performance is natural and entertaining. It is through the Beaver that Black starts to try to mend his relationships and that begins with his younger son. I particularly took to the scene where they are crafting a piece of woodwork together. The change in Walter’s personality has achieved so much in so little time.
There’s a melancholic sadness that permeates The Beaver, that you may or may not feel. Foster never over-sentimentalises the subject matter, but there are gestures and lines that get across the truly tragic nature of the character. I felt a foreboding as we learn that Walter’s Father committed suicide through his deep depressions, for example. Comedy often precedes sadness, especially during the scenes of the Blacks attempt to celebrate their wedding anniversary. 
The character of the Beaver itself, whose voice sounds a little like a mix of Mark Sheppard, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Mel Gibson, could have inadvertently belittled and mocked the subject of mental illness, but this never happens. The reactions of the staff of the toy company best reflect the feelings of the audience; that we buy into Black’s “performance” because what is being said is believable and workable. Ok, so the guy has his fist up a Beaver toy (that sounds ruder than I meant it to be) but he talks sense and, initially, the company reaps the reward of his outlook.

Despite my open mind to this story, some of it doesn’t quite make sense. Meredith’s solution to run off and leave Walter seems callous and dangerous when the next step should have been to have Walter taken into care or at the very least to have him looked after and counselled by the guy that Walter was already supposed to have been seeing. The scenes in the last act resemble similar scenes in Evil Dead 2, when Bruce Campbell’s Ash has a possessed hand that takes over and hurts him. Walter’s solution is the same as Ash’s and eventually leads to a nice neat ending that isn’t too forced but is warm and convenient.

I can’t help but speculate what kind of movie this would have been had either Steve Carrell or Jim Carrey starred in it. I’d guess that the tone would have been lighter and the mental illness factor been more superficial. Both actors have proven that they’re more than capable of playing straight roles but Gibson nails the part so well, I’m glad that he took it on board.
There are few movies that have the stones to tackle mental illness in such a way that it treats it with respect whilst entertaining the viewer. The only other movie that comes close, in my view, is Rain Man. They’re two entirely different movies but both share a common aspect; great acting, direction and writing. This is Mel Gibson at his very best and it is a terrible shame that his personal life overshadowed this movie. I think of it as a must-see movie, although I appreciate that the subject matter and how it appears is not everyone’s idea of how a fun night in with a movie should be.
Score: 9/10

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