The Beaver (****)

Regardless of what you think of Mel Gibson and his personal issues, there’s only one thing to be said about his performance in Jodie Foster’s film The Beaver, and that’s simply that it’s the best performance of his career.  Foster’s direction is sublime and able to take a premise that for all intents and purposes should result in an absolute disaster of a film and craft a borderline masterpiece.  With Gibson giving an Oscar-worthy performance, Foster doing the best direction of her career behind the camera, the supporting cast (including Jennifer Lawrence and Anton Yelchin) doing excellent work, and the script by Kyle Killen being the most original and engrossing screenplay this year (though Foster ended up cutting some of the most unique aspects of the script I read and did a Script Review on, but more on that later), I think this is an absolutely brilliant film.  The Oscar prospects for this flick are dimmer than they should be due to Mel Gibson’s personal demons, but I’m not interested in those.  Strictly looking at the movie, it’s worthy of a multitude of nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, and Original Screenplay.

Walter Black (Gibson), as we learn in a voiceover by a narrator who we learn the identity of at a later date, is depressed.  He’s tried everything, but he mostly spends his days sleeping now.  His wife Meredith (Foster) has tried to be supportive, but she can’t take it anymore, and for the sake of her sons Porter (Yelchin) and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), kicks Walter out.  While throwing his personal belongings in the garbage, he comes across a beat up beaver puppet.  Something compels Walter to save it, and he has it on during a suicide attempt in a motel room.  When that fails and he wakes up the next morning, he finds himself speaking to himself through the puppet.  It addresses itself as simply “The Beaver”, and wants to save Walter’s life.  In allowing the puppet to take the lead, Walter is like a different person.  This has a ripple effect on others as well.  After a bit of confusion, Meredith is happy to have her husband back, though the puppet is still off-putting to her.  Their youngest son, Henry, previously picked on and silent at school, develops a love for the puppet and becomes an expert carpenter.  The toy company Walter is a CEO at is no longer failing after modeling their latest toy on the puppet (based off of Henry’s enthusiasm for it).  Pretty much the only person not falling in line with the wishes of The Beaver is Porter, who resents how similar he is to his father and keeps a running list of their similarities so he can systematically eliminate them.  While Walter is doing this, Porter is beginning a tentative romance with Nora (Lawrence), the valedictorian who wants to employ his paper writing skills (he’s known at school for having a talent at sounding like other people…anyone but himself, really) to craft a graduation speech for her.  Their interactions dovetail nicely with Walter’s story, and when both narratives reach their conclusions, it’ll become apparent how much this story is really about fathers and sons.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Mel Gibson deserves an Oscar for this portrait of a sick man.  To be sure, his troubles in real life make this an even more vivid portrayal, but he succeeds here in making Walter a magnificent character based on acting talent.  He speaks through the puppet for 85% of the movie, and when he’s not, he’s like a different person.  When he’s with The Beaver, he’s dynamic and happy (and employing an interesting accent…it almost sounds like Ray Winstone).  When he’s speaking as puppet-less Walter, he sounds on the verge of tears, his eyes both wide with fear and on the verge of tears.  It’s an intense performance, notable for the skill in which he separates the personalities, as well as for the deft hand he uses in giving the puppet personality.  It’s easily the best acting I’ve seen all year.  Jodie Foster’s supporting role is even less developed than in the script, but her skill as an actress manages to make her character more three dimensional than it otherwise would be.  It’s a thankless role, but she gives it a little weight.  Anton Yelchin has never been better, and I’d say is worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Walter’s son.  Porter just wants to be anyone but his dad, and each similar trait just depresses him more.  When he starts bonding with Nora, a whole new world is opened to him, but like Walter, he has to fight the self-destructive instincts that plague them.  Jennifer Lawrence shows that ‘Winter’s Bone’ wasn’t a fluke, making her cheerleader/valedictorian character far more complex than you’d expect.  I’d love to see Nora and Porter in their own film, but they both make their moments count in the subplot.   There’s also a supporting part for Cherry Jones, and she’s good as well.  Suffice to say, Gibson and Yelchin are incredible, with Lawrence not far behind them.

Jodie Foster directs the film with a soft touch, never going too far into the comedy realm to dilute the drama, but never getting too dark in the drama either.  It is sublime work, and perhaps too subtle to notice, but it’s among the finest direction I’ve seen this year.  If I have any issue with her, it’s in her decision to cut down Kyle Killen’s brilliant script and slightly change a few aspects of it.  A good 10 minutes of material in the script is not in the flick, and they were excellent moments that built a larger world to the story, and she shortchanges Nora a bit in order to make the subplot a little cleaner.  The movie on its own is great; I just loved the script and would have liked to have seen it in all its glory.

The Beaver is the best movie of 2011 hands down, and deserves major awards attention.  The early release date and controversy likely won’t allow it to last, but it’s more than worthy.  I know for a fact it’ll end up on my year end top 10 list…it’s just that good.  Put aside any feelings you may have about Mel Gibson and watch this engrossing performance.  You won’t regret it, as this is a special film.