Be prepared: The Beaver is going to ask a lot of you.
Actress Jodie Foster's third directorial effort is an engaging, tonally sporadic, occasionally overwrought and impressive little flick. The script is a risky work of art, the kind that rarely escapes the black hole of a Hollywood executives waste paper basket, let alone sees the green light of day. The Beaver is problematic, yes, but its core, Mel Gibson's immersive performance, is too absorbing to write off.
Gibson plays Walter Black, a man suffering from a long-gesting depression that's ruined his family life, profession and well-being. There's no hint of a particular incident or memory that triggered Walter's despondency, but from the first few minutes we see his wife (played by Foster) kick him and a fallen man attempt to end his life.
"Attempt," because Walter never makes it over the rail of his motel. The failed suicide sends the man falling backwards and eventually being awoken by a previously acquired beaver puppet, now randomly finding a home on his left hand. The Beaver has a life (and cockney accent) all its own, reviving the groggy Walter and catapulting him back into his life full force. This starts out very funny -- Gibson shows restraint when speaking as "The Beaver," but injects humor simply by playing it straight. Yes, this is a man who speaks solely through a beaver puppet and people try to deal with it.
As Walter's mental state comes under greater scrutiny, Foster switches gears, shifting The Beaver into heavier territory as her character Meredith once again becomes fed up with her husband's unwavering behavior. Foster's approach plays like a glossier version of Eternal Sunshine, where the unbelievable and realistic collide (albeit less effectively in The Beaver). The film thankfully succeeds in avoiding syrupy sentimentality, but by the time things get really heavy, you wish Foster had found a way to infuse her earlier comedic moments into the darker material.
The Beaver intertwines extensions of its mental health themes into subplots involving Porter (Anton Yelchin), Walter's similarly disturbed son who falls for the emotionally-stilted Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). But in the end, it's through and through, the Mel show. Gibson never delves into slapstick territory, the way you might imagine former Beaver candidates Jim Carey and Steve Carell would have, and he owns it. The Beaver is real, he gets his own close-ups, and Gibson's Walter is second fiddle.
Foster directs The Beaver with a necessary simplicity and writer Kyle Killen's script is convincing and harrowing in its depiction of depression (accuracy be damned). The tone fluctuates like a mad man, but when The Beaver hits, it hits hard. Gibon was the perfect choice, and unlike his energetic work in the past, he plays most of the film quietly behind a mask: his own eyes. You can see Walter's brain at work in every scene, even when the Beaver is talking up a storm.
The Beaver will ask a lot of you, and it's worth the risk.