The Beaver (2011): Mel Gibson's Odd Attempted Comeback in a Talking Animal Flop

by Paul Deeter

Actors have had their fair share of controversies and public misdemeanors, but none so damning it seems as the train-wreck Mel Gibson caused for himself, between 2004-2011. Actors like him, who are white and audacious and express blatant racial or sexual misconduct, are not victims, and their actions should be held accountable. So in this article, I am not recommending or sympathizing with actors like Mel Gibson, or Russell Crowe or any of the kind who have abused their power and privilege by acting out in inflammatory ways in the public eye. With all of the ground that has been covered in revealing Hollywood's dark secrets, with the #MeToo movement and #OscarsSoWhite breaking barriers of discrimination and secret controversy behind the camera, there's still an unfortunate habit in Hollywood for the bounce-back of actors into career roles. Call it unwarranted forgiveness, or inaction by avoiding seeing the whole issues. Call it what you will. It's a problematic landscape for film, TV and other visual media, and its only changing as fast as we let it. So with the forgiveness we collectively allow ourselves to give to directors like Clint Eastwood, with all of his political misguidance, or more notably actors like Michael Richards who in my opinion went too far to come back despite Larry David's Seinfeld reunion. Mel Gibson is no saint, and at no point do I intend and defending him or his actions in this piece.

So to briefly catch up on Mel Gibson, we have to go back to 2004 and one of the most successful and simultaneously controversial films The Passion of the Christ. The film suffered critically and in the public eye, for oh so many reasons. Perhaps it was whitewashing Jesus with Jim Caviezel's portrayal, or the extended and unnecessary violence depicted in the torture and crucifixion in the film. Most notably, as his record wouldn't improve for the next some years, he was accused for racism depicting the Jewish prosecutors in the film so horridly, that multiple investigations into his family history about anti-Semitism and critiques of the film inevitably blew up when Gibson was pulled over and arrested for a DUI in California. In this altercation, for lack of a better word, with his arresting officer, he spit sexist and racist remarks at her and the media, damning his marriage to end, and his image to completely shatter. In the following years, despite attempting to return to the director's chair with the film Apocalypto his remarks, threats and overall offensive behavior both to his family and the public just dug deeper and deeper a grave for the actor.

So in 2011, over five years past the controversies began, and his true behavior came to light, it was very surprising to hear that Gibson would be the starring role in a indie drama called The Beaver. This film, directed by Jodie Foster in one of her few outings behind the camera, was released through SXSW and eventually in May to the public of 2011. The film did not recap on its budget, but was semi-admirably received on Rotten Tomatoes, and even at its festival premiere. I feel that this movie would have trouble whether it was released in 2011, or 2006 or today in 2021. This year is actually the tenth year anniversary of this film's debut, and I don't necessarily imagine that people are still talking about it, or will even have thought of it when this article comes out. But when this film came out, it attempted one of the strangest comeback stories in its time, and for some ways, it worked. For better or worse.

There's a lot to be said about the psychology of The Beaver. Here is a film where our protagonist is deeply depressed and washed up, so much so that the character Walter is actually seen in the beginning of the film going through the motions blankly until an attempted (and for some reason) comedic suicide attempt. It's through the failed attempt here that he hits his head and comes to conscious with a beaver puppet he found in a dumpster, telling him to wake up. That's not entirely the case though, as Walter is actually just pantomiming the puppet and talking through it himself. But this dialogue he has is enough motivation to get up, dust himself off, and try again. And he had tried many times before, through yoga and therapy, and the film tries to say that this is his last ditch method, or nothing else quite worked until he met The Beaver. Who is The Beaver? Well he's a cockney-British accented cartoonish animal who is inspired to wood-work, has new imagination towards his job and even the ability to re-connect with his nearly separated family. What's strange and very glossed over is the supportive reaction most of his family has to this "toy" and its complete control over Walter. Sure he's making his young 8-year old laugh, and that's more than he had done in months we gather, but he also becomes a hit at work and even brings him closer to his wife. Why?

The movie is self aware enough to make Walter's journey seem believable enough to have him hand out cards to his family and employees stating "this is a therapy method for Walter" instead of just trying to B.S. his way out of talking about it. And when confronted about it, the BS is completely avoided, with his nervous shifty eyes showing his underlying psyche that's not really being addressed but is kind of covered up by the Beaver's optimism and wit. The Beaver is way too accepted. His coworkers, even the prickly ones, laugh and are inspired by Walter's new direction, and maybe because its lit a fire under him. But the movie, both directed and depicted by Foster, shows her falling madly in love with the man to the point of sex scenes with the puppet still. on. his. hand. Yeah.

Sorry, honey. The Beaver Puppet stays on during sex.

While the film narrates Walter's journey in the biggest spotlight, a surprising if cliched relationship between two high-schoolers played by Anton Yelchin (RIP) and Jennifer Lawrence happens in the background. It's not enough to distract us from the weirdness the movie takes on with the Beaver, and it seems half-hearted. It does try to carry a message of loss in parallel to the depression that is addressed by Walter's depiction, but is it truly addressed? Walter inevitably falls back off the deep end, and commits some major self-harm in act three. We sympathize for him, because we have to. The movie doesn't seem to care enough that it is portraying a deeply troubled man in a comedic light for about an hour before diving deep into the psychology of just what's wrong with him. It glosses over the past of Gibson, as the result of depression and drinking and truly does try to stick a landing on the subject of receiving help for these addictions. It's so weird and in its weirdness is weirdly close to working, but just as the Tomato-meter rests at just shy of 60%, the film can't quite figure out what it is. The consensus from most critics and one I would have to agree with, is that this is a movie that can't decide if it's charming, or deeply ironic, with some visual cues and narrative moments straight out of a Wes Anderson project. It can't figure out what to feel for Walter, and balances a tough line between pity and sympathy. Is the Beaver really helping Walter? Well as the film goes on despite odd successes and rekindling in almost every department of his life, the Beaver eventually becomes what it truly was all along, unhealthy. It's almost comic when the transition includes Gibson literally fighting a beaver puppet, but when followed with self-harm are we supposed to laugh? I couldn't find it, but one reviewer put it at the time as a film that wants to charm and joke with you about its premise, and then immediately punish you for feeling that way. It's a mess, it's uneven and it was a flop.

Yesterday, I found it at my local Mega Media Exchange for $3.99. I've been in the habit of picking up old movies I've seen for cheap, even one-offs, along with collector-worthy looking conditions of OOP copies of Blu-Rays and 4K discs. I have many "shelfies" to show for my growing physical media collection, and I don't intend to stop that. So when I found this movie, I reminded myself of the first time I watched it, having been betwixt by its trailers and the idea of Gibson back on screen directed by a distinguished female actor in Hollywood. A psychological dramedy? With a beaver puppet? I mean there are weirded movies, but this was an oddball for sure. So what did I think at the time? Well, God help me, or Jim Caviezel Jesus or whoever, but I liked it. I just watched it today, and I still do. It's not a good movie, I don't really care for the lead and haven't gone out of my way to see Gibson on screen again in probably ten years. But there's some unusual charm to it, a blurry message buried under a bonkers script, and even a musical soundtrack backing by a great, late Frightened Rabbit track. It's weird and a mess, and in no way am I recommending it. But it's happened. It exists. And ten years later, I found it on a bargain wall in a media store, and I re-watched it. Whether or not Gibson got his comeback with this film, he certainly hasn't been out of roles, following years of success with roles in Daddy's Home 2 and Expendables 3. So maybe I see it non-contextually. It's not a comeback film, but its unique enough to admire for its aspirations. Bound to flop, and probably forgotten because of it, The Beaver is a strange, rental or streaming only film that I thought I'd talk about, whether or not it deserves the attention.

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