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The Beaver Movingly Portrays Mental Illness

<i>The Beaver</i> Movingly Portrays Mental Illness

DVD Release Date: August 23, 2011 
Theatrical Release Date: May 6, 2011 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality, language and a drug reference)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 91 min.
Director: Jodie Foster
Actors: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones

“People love a train wreck—unless it’s happening to them.”

Given all that’s transpired in Mel Gibson’s personal life of late and how it’s played out in all its ugly glory in every news publication, respectable and otherwise, you can’t help but think that line from The Beaver really connected with the troubled actor. After all, he definitely knows a little something about falling off the rails, and perhaps, that’s why he signed on for the role of a man who’s clearly suffering in his own skin.

In case you were expecting someone else, this isn’t the same guy who magically transforms from a cad to a selfless do-gooder who ends up getting the girl in What Women Want. He’s also not the lovable dad with a major crisis of faith in Signs. In fact, Gibson looks exactly how his character Walter Black feels when the camera zooms in for a close-up—tired, haggard and positively hopeless.

Unlike some inherently depressing movies where the audience is briefly transported back to a time where life was more upbeat for the protagonist, The Beaver doesn’t bother with feel-good sentimentality. Instead, we meet Walter in the middle of his anguish—as he’s buying the booze he hopes will numb him as he ends his own pathetic life.

See, his family has pretty much lost patience with the perpetual cloud that hangs over him. Spending the bulk of his 24 hours a day sleeping, he’s not contributing to anything or anyone, something his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, The Brave One) fears will have an adverse effect on her two sons, Porter (Anton Yelchin, Terminator Salvation) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). Little does she know that Porter, a senior in high school, already suspects he’s becoming just like his father. So he keeps a running tally of their similarities in a cloud of Post-its on his bedroom wall.

As much as Walter gives it his best shot, his suicide attempt isn’t successful. So in the absence of other options, he decides to head back home. Making a quick stop to a nearby dumpster to first throw away the remnants from his lost weekend, a ratty brown puppet in the shape of a beaver immediately catches his eye. And then Walter has an epiphany—or maybe it was the beaver—maybe just maybe, Walter could reboot his life if he let the beaver do the talking for him (in a Cockney accent, no less).

So Walter adopts the beaver and the accent, which is quite the surprise to his family. While his younger son is quite accepting and actually welcomes the regular conversation with a much more witty version of his dad, his older son and wife are predictably worried about Walter’s fragile mental state.

But Walter feels so empowered by the prospect of a second shot at life that he returns to work, namely the toy company his father left him in charge of when he passed away. While seeing their boss with an ever-present beaver puppet on his arm takes a bit of getting used to, Walter eventually earns the employees' trust when he invents a new beaver-oriented tool set that ends up escalating to veritable Justin Bieber levels of popularity.

As Walter happily makes the talk show rounds and is interviewed by everyone from Matt Lauer to Jon Stewart because of his unusual success story, you immediately get the sense of his fragile state and how things are about to take a radical turn for the worse. And do they ever…

In what’s easily Gibson’s best performance in years, you never get the sense that he’s actually acting. Whether that’s a credit to a winning script, Foster’s adept direction or Gibson’s strong connection with the source material, one thing’s for sure: Even in all its eccentricity, The Beaver is a disturbing yet moving portrayal of mental illness.

Emphasizing that there’s no quick fix for the hurting, we’re all reminded that more than anything, the road to redemption is often a rocky one, but love and support sure make it a whole lot easier. And I’m guessing that’s probably what Gibson himself hopes people will remember in light of his personal struggles, too.


  • Drugs/Alcohol: Just one of Walter’s many problems is the abuse of alcohol. Prescription drugs, specifically used to treat depression, are referenced on several occasions.
  • Language/Profanity: One use of fu--, plus other profanity including god--m-, as-, da--, bitc-, he--, sh--.
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing between the teen protagonists. Walter and his wife Meredith are shown having sex in a couple of scenes (some skin is shown, but nothing gratuitous) while Walter has the puppet on his arm. It’s meant to be some comic relief in what’s a pretty heavy story, particularly when the puppet is panting and breathing heavily in time with Walter.
  • Violence: We see Walter attempt to kill himself in a couple of scenes (once he tries hanging himself from a hotel bathroom’s shower rod). A TV falls on Walter when he’s drunk. When Walter gets angry or feels utterly hopeless, he tends to self injure, something his son Porter also does by banging his head repeatedly against a wall. SPOILER ALERT: In the film’s most disturbing scene, Walter cuts his hand off with a band saw because he thinks the beaver is taunting him.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.