There are two things to consider before going to watch The Beaver. The first is how you personally feel about Mel Gibson. If you don’t like him because of his personal life (or any other reason, really), then you probably won’t like this movie, because it focuses most of its attention on him. The second is whether or not you can get over and behind the ridiculous premise that I’m about to describe.
Essentially what happens is this: Walter Black (Gibson) walks around for an entire movie with a beaver puppet on his left hand while talking in a strange accent. It’s rationalized as a way for his character to deal with his depression. Right before he slips the beaver on, he’s moments away from killing himself. Afterward, he’s a different person, although he does all of the talking through the puppet. His marriage to Meredith (Jodie Foster), which had previously been falling apart, begins to mend, his youngest child (Riley Thomas Stewart) loves his father again, and the Beaver even manages to help Walter at work.
The only person not completely enamored with this idea (after getting used to it, anyway), is Walter’s elder son, Porter (Anton Yelchin). Porter is a very bright teenager — his main source of income is having other students pay him to write their papers — but he and his dad never really saw eye to eye, and this beaver fiasco isn’t helping. They grow even farther apart, with Porter more or less stating at every turn that he hates his dad. Porter actually gets his on subplot, which involves him and the school’s most popular cheerleader, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence).
You will not like The Beaver (at least, not in the way it wants to be appreciated) if you can’t get past the idea of Mel Gibson spending the vast majority of his screentime with a beaver puppet on his hand. However, if you just laughed at your mental picturing of that image, you still might enjoy this film. I thought this premise was hilarious, but after the film stars, we adjust and it becomes more natural and not necessarily all that funny, especially once we realize the implications for the character.
See, Walter is a very, very depressed man. Narration informs us that sleeping is all he’s wanted to do for years now. That kind of psychological state is a terrible place to be. In order to process it, he resorts to this puppet. That’s heartbreakingly tragic, and once you realize the reasoning behind the Beaver’s involvement, it sinks in just how low Walter is in his life. However, about mid-way through, we begin to question whether Walter’s really processing anything, or using the Beaver as a way to ignore the responsibilities of every day life. Or maybe, as is hinted at a couple of times, the Beaver is actually a magical object that is using him to take over the world.
The secondary plot involving Porter and Norah ends up getting more focus than we might initially think. They get an ample number of scenes to show us what they have to offer, and much of the human element of the film comes from the two teenagers. Their story is just as sweet, just as tragic, as the main one, and it’s actually more relatable. I mean, would anyone really start speaking in a different accent and wear a beaver puppet all day and night in lieu of traditional treatments? Well, maybe, but those cases are going to be a lot fewer than ones of teenage love, heartbreak, and redemption.
It’s almost surprising how natural the beaver puppet becomes after a while. We forget how preposterous it seems and sit back and watch events unfold before us. By the end, you’ve become attached to everyone in the film, realizing that you’ve been on quite an emotional ride for a while now. Like the characters in the film, you accept the Beaver for all it brings. The puppet becomes more of a character than Walter, really, but we still manage to sense his struggle with all of his illnesses.
Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but in my eyes, he’s both (1) a really good actor, and (2) absolutely perfect for this role. He sells this idea, and while I have no doubt that acting alongside a beaver stuck to your hand is on the top of his wish list, he goes all in. He makes it seem natural, and is actually the core reason that The Beaver works at all. Having been through his own struggles in recent years, I’m sure he drew on that knowledge when creating his character for this film. That’s not to discredit the other actors, as they’re all fine — unremarkable, but just fine — but since Gibson is front and center for the majority, and because his role initially seems so ridiculous, the weight of carrying this production falls squarely on his shoulders.
I know that a lot of people will be put off not only because this is a drama starring Mel Gibson, but also because it features Mel Gibson and a seemingly sentient puppet. These kinds of things sometimes can’t be overcome now matter how open minded you want to be. But if both of these things aren’t too much of a turn-off, I definitely have to give The Beaver a recommendation. I went in expecting a film so bad that it would be a riot, and I ended up with a touching drama about a man in a terrible state of mind.