The role Mel Gibson was born to play

The actor's performance in "The Beaver" is peculiar, disturbing -- and utterly brilliant

Topics: Mel Gibson, Our Picks, Movies,

The role Mel Gibson was born to playJodie Foster and Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"

Even before Mel Gibson’s most recent set of personal and legal difficulties — i.e., the “revelation” that he sometimes behaves like an unbelievable prick, and may be dangerously unstable — “The Beaver” was always going to be a weird footnote to his career. But both within the universe of Hollywood and the universe of the film, there was a logic to it: Take an immensely gifted actor, once a dominant star but now viewed as a bigot and a wacko, and unleash him on a dark, ambitious script about a character suffering a schizophrenic breakdown. Add the fact that Gibson’s director and co-star is perhaps the most respected woman in the film industry and roll the dice; if producer Steve Golin was imagining a possible upside of “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” here, it’s no wonder, since he helped make those movies too.

In the wake of Gibson’s unfortunate phone calls to his ex-girlfriend and the ensuing blizzard of bad publicity, “The Beaver” became more of a sideshow than a footnote. I can understand why its bizarre combination of ingredients sounded to many people like a career-killing disaster: Gibson and Jodie Foster? They’re not just colleagues but good friends? And they play a couple? And there’s a mangy, demonic beaver puppet with a Michael Caine East End accent and a faint resemblance to Godzilla? That’s all accurate, and it’s pretty hard — no, it’s impossible — not to watch “The Beaver” through the lens of what we know or believe about its actors and their off-screen lives.

I suppose the perfect ending to the chapter would be to report that “The Beaver” is a masterpiece. It isn’t quite, but it does offer an astonishing and resonant performance by Gibson, who spends most of the movie playing two simultaneous characters, often in the same shot. On one hand, he’s the profoundly depressed toy executive Walter Black, and on the other hand (ha, ha!) he’s the cheerful, scabrous alternate personality that Walter has poured into a puppet he dug out of a Dumpster behind a liquor store. Walter isn’t a ventriloquist and there’s no suggestion of supernatural agency here, so Gibson frequently has to voice the Beaver’s lines at the same moment as he’s reacting, with his face and body, as the terrified and uncertain Walter. I don’t know whether Gibson is Method-acting out of his own psychology or is just a brilliant mimic, but it’s tough to resist the conclusion that this guy knows what it’s like to look in the mirror and not quite recognize the person he sees there.

Kyle Killen’s screenplay for “The Beaver” floated around Hollywood for several years as one of those legendary, perhaps unfilmable projects; it resonates with literary ambition and film-school influences, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it all works. (I should note that in 2004 Killen wrote a hilarious and highly popular article for Salon about his career in tech support.) There’s a bit of Charlie Kaufman-style high concept here, filtered through arguably a bit too much of Alan Ball’s script for “American Beauty.” If the latter movie is narrated by a dead man and this one is narrated by, well, a beaver with a put-on London accent, Walter nonetheless undergoes a symbolic death and rebirth, with the aid of a shower-curtain bar, a television set and an episode of “Kung Fu.”

From the uncanny moment when the Beaver wakes Walter from an alcoholic stupor in his trashed motel room, all is changed, changed utterly: He comes home to his bewildered wife, Meredith (that’s Foster, giving a tense, restrained performance), and their two kids, demonstrates newfound skills at fatherhood, and brings his company back from bankruptcy with a line of Beaver-inspired woodworking toys. Killen is both invoking and parodying the American mania for sudden transformation — meetings with Jesus, being touched by an angel, surrendering to a greater power, etc. — and echoing all those Frank Capra-style movies about someone who is granted magical favors and then must deal with the consequences. (With a bigger budget and more slapstick, this could and arguably should have been a Jim Carrey movie.)

Walter tells Meredith that the Beaver was his shrink’s idea, which isn’t true, and doesn’t make her feel that much better about the puppet being in bed with them (the funniest of the film’s black-comic sequences). Yes, even the most sympathetic viewer may have trouble staying in this movie’s diegetic universe the whole time; “The Beaver” offers passionate scenes of simulated sex between a presumed misogynist asshole, a presumed not-quite-closeted lesbian and a semi-menacing beaver puppet, and it’s not possible to tell whether you’re laughing for the right reasons.

Foster responds to the outrageous premise of “The Beaver” by dialing back the direction and delivering the story in unassuming, largely realistic fashion. She clears a calm, quiet space around Gibson, allowing him to deliver a brilliantly contradictory performance. He’s always been an actor of tremendous charisma and almost manic energy, and he deploys that here to play a paunchy, battered, leathery-looking man so exhausted with himself that he outsources his own life force. At least in theory Foster’s approach sounds like the right idea, but whether she was overly concerned with protecting her friend or with playing a difficult supporting role, she never seems to develop a clear idea of what the movie’s about or why it exists. There’s an ancillary plot about Walter and Meredith’s damaged teenage son (Anton Yelchin) and his budding romance with the school valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence), which is likable enough but doesn’t seem to be happening on the same planet.

Maybe the most compelling scene in “The Beaver” is also its most artificial, when Walter-via-Beaver delivers a moving monologue to “Today” show host Matt Lauer about how sometimes it’s necessary to throw away your past and start over. He joshes with Jon Stewart, poses for the covers of Wired and Fortune. But the Beaver is not entirely a benevolent force, and has no intention of surrendering control of Walter’s personality. (There’s more than a dash of “Magic,” the late-’70s Anthony Hopkins ventriloquist-horror flick, in this movie’s DNA.) Walter’s final solution to this problem is both shocking and ludicrous, but it only heightens the sense that Foster and Gibson — mismatched friends with quasi-public secrets — have made a psychodrama that’s partly therapy and partly self-criticism. Was it Mel who made those terrible phone calls, or was it the puppet?

“The Beaver” opens May 6 in New York and Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>