During the pre-release promotion for her new film, The Beaver, director/star Jodie Foster participated in a roundtable interview with members of the Boston-area film media including Bob “MovieBob” Chipman of The Escapist. The following quotations from Ms. Foster are taken from this interview.
“I think you need to ask yourself the question – which I do with my films – ‘is it true or is it not true?'”
— Jodie Foster
The Beaver (might as well get it out of your system now) is a strange film: It’s predominantly a serious family drama about surviving clinical depression but also a pitch-black comedy that plays like a brutal satire of “happy” movies where (perceived) magical intervention or “wacky” lifestyle changes repair a damaged person. The dicey subject matter – touching on grim topics like suicide, self-mutilation, and marriages in free-fall – was always going to be a hard sell and that’s before you consider that the lead role is filled by Mel Gibson, the pre-Charlie Sheen poster child for self-inflicted career implosion.
“I needed somebody to carry the weight of the drama, and who would understand not to play into the comedic elements of it. Somebody who could take the audience … who’d held a film together before, could take the audience through the story, and I feel like [Mel Gibson] and I know each other so well, that there’s real compassion between the two of us.”
— Jodie Foster
Gibson is Walter Black, a once-successful family man who’s been rendered into little more than a zombie by a deep depression that no amount of therapy seems to help. He sleeps through most of the day, barely speaks to his wife (Jodie Foster), and lets his business (in a touch of supreme irony, he owns a toy company) wither around him. His youngest son is just young enough to be merely confused, but his eldest (Anton Yelchin) is taking it rough, hiding a secret “dent” in his bedroom wall used for the specific purpose of bashing his head into a daze, meticulously cataloging behavioral resemblances to his father he aims to purge from his person, and operating a thriving criminal enterprise forging essays for fellow students. As the film opens, Walter has moved, “for the good of the family,” into a hotel suite, where his failed attempt at suicide-by-alcohol impedes his attempts at suicide-by-everything-else.
At some point in the midst of this final breakdown (The Beaver isn’t really big on events happening with specific explanation), Walter randomly decides to pluck a plush Beaver hand-puppet from a dumpster. When he awakes from his near-suicidal stupor, the puppet is on his hand and talking to him in a voice that sounds like Ray Winstone impersonating Michael Caine. We’re to understand that Walter has suffered a psychotic break and that his id, or something like it, is now speaking for itself through The Beaver.
“[Mr. Beaver is] a survival tool. Is it an ‘erroneous’ survival tool? Probably, but it was the only one he could think of that would get him out of this … but that survival tool, after a while you have to get rid of that, too.”
— Jodie Foster.
In the Beaver’s persona, Walter is a different man – warm, friendly, energetic and direct. That his family, friends and coworkers are all more-or-less willing to go along with it is something of an intellectual hurdle (he carries a notecard purporting to explain that he is “under the care of a Prescription Puppet”), but then again the film’s overall tone doesn’t suggest a 100% commitment to realism, unless I’m out of touch and there really are public high schools in America where homework-forgers are subject to cloak-and-dagger legal scrutiny better befitting a cocaine kingpin.
“We worked with a puppeteer. I kept saying to [Mel Gibson] ‘the guy doesn’t actually know how to use a puppet, you don’t have to work so hard at it,’ and he’s seen all the same Michael Caine movies we’ve all seen … but Mel likes to hold on to things like that.”
— Jodie Foster
The puppet is a big hit with the younger son (older son, significantly less so), mom is willing to work with it and the office falls right into line, especially when Mr. Beaver’s new toy pitch, a self-inspired kiddie woodshop kit, becomes a Furby-esque phenomenon. Of course, no serious-minded film would actually suggest that enabling a mentally ill man’s game of make-believe is a good idea as a long-term fix, (well, Lars & The Real Girl sort of did, but that’s a whole other thing) so one doubts that most audiences will be surprised when the prospect of having to get on with life without the Beaver as a crutch takes Walter to even darker places than before. The Beaver is asking a lot of its audience to accept the basic premise, and then asks much more of them come the third act.
“The tone took a long time to get right. I think the script had more of an exaggerated comedy and a more exaggerated drama as well. We had to work on that … just to try and ‘massage’ that trajectory. But it does have a weird tone because the concept – the guy with the puppet on his hand – it seems comedic.”
— Jodie Foster
I won’t say that The Beaver is an entirely successful film. It’s a brave one, using the gag of the puppet as a reason to go further into the unpleasant realities of clinical depression rather than to skirt them, and it’s extremely well acted. But the four main running plotlines – Walter & Beaver, Walter, Beaver & Wife, “Mr. Beaver Woodchop Kit” as a satire of consumer phenomena, and the older son’s complicated high school romance – don’t fully coalesce with one another by the time it wraps up. And yes, it must be said, I can’t begrudge audiences for being unable to separate Mel Gibson’s increasingly horrible public persona from his onscreen characters.
Nonetheless, The Beaver remains an interesting film quite unlike anything else being released right now. That alone, for me, makes it at least worth a look.
“The thing about directing is … you get to have this piece of film that says ‘this is what I love. This is what I believe in.'”
— Jodie Foster
The Beaver opens in select theaters the U.S. today, May 6th. The trailer for the film can be viewed here.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.