Published Jun 13 2011, 16:44 BST | By Stella Papamichael
Having offended most sections of society with his well-publicised outbursts, Mel Gibson
resorts to talking to a puppet. Funnily enough, The Beaver
- essentially a hairy brown sock - turns out to be a useful place to stash years' worth of emotional baggage for the troubled star and his on-screen alter-ego, depressed toy executive Walter Black. Friend and co-star Jodie Foster directs this mad character study (or study of madness) with a gentleness of touch that defies its shocking premise and though not quite as profound as it aims to be, The Beaver
grabs a hold of you.
At first there is disquiet, not least because Walter Black is introduced in a cockney voiceover that sounds unnervingly like Ray Winstone. In fact it's the voice Black (Gibson) lends to the puppet which helps him translate all of the stunted emotions swirling inside. He comes across his furry friend in a dumpster; recycling his empties after the numerous bottoms of whiskey bottles fail to turn up any answers about his purpose in life. The sense of unease is heightened by parallels with Gibson's own battle with the demon drink and the first appearance of the toothy puppet immediately cuts the tension. Essentially, he's a funny little sidekick for a very sad straight-man.
Okay, so then it gets weird... Having been banished from the family home by long-suffering wife Meredith (Foster), Black bungles a suicide attempt in a motel - largely because wearing a big furry mitten hampers your ability to tie a noose properly. Meredith then allows him back into the fold, with The Beaver in tow, horrifying their teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin). Conversely, their youngest boy Henry (Riley Thomas) is enraptured by the puppet, who teaches him woodwork and facilitates more quality time with dad. Meredith isn't so enamoured by the fleabag and yet finds herself in its ticklish embrace, enjoying new intimacy with hubbie thanks to its intervention.
Foster punctuates surreal moments with close-ups on The Beaver, whether it's staring dispassionately into her eyes after sex, or facing down its angry master. There's much amusement to be had, but what's more disarming is how quickly this set-up begins to feel normal. Rational, even. Gibson plays his part like a deer in the headlights - vulnerable - except when the puppet stands in for him. Black becomes a dynamic communicator (albeit indirectly), shaking things up at the toy company with a best-selling Beaver-inspired woodwork set. Only Porter remains unimpressed and their tug-of-love becomes the fulcrum of the story, tipping it slightly off balance.
Yelchin is suitably intense as the rebel son, but obsessively papering his bedroom with notes on their shared personality traits is a tad too dramatic. Low-key drama gives way to even bigger quirks of fate, like the overnight fame thrust upon Black thanks to the woodwork set and his not-so silent business partner. While the line between therapy and insanity blurs, Foster also becomes less focussed. She lures us into Black's world only to pull back at the last moment, homing in on Porter's banal attempts to cope i.e. snogging a moody cheerleader (Jennifer Lawrence). Talk of her brother's death and a desperate burst of violence towards the end constitute a wild stab at pathos. It's before all this, when Foster isn't trying so hard, that The Beaver
packs surprising emotional punch.
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