When The Beaver was released in 2011 it was seen as a sort of public demonstration of therapy for star Mel Gibson, whose career had been derailed five years earlier by the first in a series of heavily publicized drunken foul-mouthed tirades. Gibson's friend Jodie Foster cast the exiled actor and award-winning director of controversial films — with a public history of alcoholism, depression and erratic behavior — as a man in the grip of a dissociative mental breakdown, who is only able to continue living through the alter ego of a beaver hand-puppet. As cathartic as this may have been for Gibson, audiences rejected it; while this failure was attributed by some to Gibson's soiled reputation, a year earlier his comeback vehicle Edge of Darkness grossed over $100 million despite opening the same weekend as Avatar, suggesting that maybe The Beaver's awkwardly novel premise may have been the biggest obstacle in its own path.
As a director who has made only four movies over the last 25 years, Foster's work is typically impressive on a technical level, but in the three I've seen to-date, something has been missing. It's as if Foster either lacks confidence in her material or a fails to connect the form of her movies to their content, producing appealingly polished packages that don't fit their rough and broken products, and The Beaver is a useful case-in-point. Kyle Killen's screenplay is a perfectly manicured small-budget drama in which every character has a quirk, an arc and a "satisfying" emotional button, while Hagen Bogdanski's cinematography is carefully commercial; neither of these qualities, however, reflect the emotional instability that drives Gibson's troubled character — who often seems to be trapped in a movie designed for someone else; no wonder he went crazy. However, rather than working as a clever intentional counterpoint, this too-clean aesthetic further confuses The Beaver's mish-mash of themes: is Gibson's character a hero for disappearing into a schizophrenic delusion? Is he a cliched sage of the "only the insane are sane" variety? Is he a failure hiding from the mess he's made of his life? The Beaver depicts him as all of those things, but without a strong enough point-of-view to make emotional sense of the disarray, reducing the sterile modern gloss through which we view him into a corporate-designed piece of plastic wrapping.
As an actress, Foster emerged during the 1970s, appearing in a series of risky, challenging movies with dirty and confrontational ideas around every corner, like Taxi Driver, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, and Foxes, as well as funky, sloppy head-first dives into weird concepts, like Bugsy Malone and Freaky Friday. It seems like her taste in projects as a director reflects that same interest in unusual and edgy conflicts, like how a single parent handles a child genius in Little Man Tate, or the uneasy corralling of family dysfunctions over Thanksgiving weekend in Home for the Holidays, and this odd, darkly comic, but deeply painful manifestation of a mid-life crisis in The Beaver. Yet, Foster doesn't seem to know how to make those movies, aiming for professional competence above artistic expression, creating disappointing end products despite an abundance of solid craft from cast and crew. The Beaver's best assets are its actors — Gibson, Foster, Anton Yelchin and a pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence — who do fine work with the vulnerability of their hurting characters, even if they are ultimately undermined by the script's jarring back-tracking shortly after declaring that the sentiment "Everything will be OK" is a lie. With so much schizophrenia evident in its ideas, it's hardly surprising that The Beaver never credibly establishes its central conceit nor seems to have a handle on the overall psychology of its main character beyond what fits neatly within a safe movie formula. For his part, Gibson holds nothing back, and I would like to have seen the movie that his raw performance deserves.
The Beaver was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Nigel Druitt, who can be found on Flickchart under the username johnmason. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #592 (out of 1619 movies; 63%) and 11th out of the 38 psychological dramas he's seen. On my chart, The Beaver ranks at #1812 (51%); I have 244 psychological dramas in my Flickchart, with 18 in th my top 10%; The Beaver is #136 within that competitive genre.