I went to see The Beaver this week at a popular Frederick, Maryland mall, with some of the same trepidation that many others may be experiencing for the latest effort from actor/director Jodie Foster. I had been reading of Foster’s game attempts to rescue her work when it was released last week. Given the radioactive fallout from her star actor, Mel Gibson, last year during the shooting of the film, Foster felt obliged to state that Gibson was the least neurotic actor she’s ever directed.
Unfortunately, Foster’s public relations effort did not save this film in its first weekend at the box office. Frankly, the film has bombed, either because people have a hard time taking a movie about a man and his beaver hand puppet seriously, or, more likely, as a protest against Gibson’s captured phone comments last year, with their misogynistic content and raving quality. A worse situation for a director would be hard to fathom. But apparently, Gibson’s personal revelations took place too late for Foster to make a change in her main character, Walter Black. So she plowed on, got the film wrapped up, then must have considered how to release the film in such a way as to minimize the damage.
But The Beaver is about the very thing that Gibson seemed to be going through in his personal life last year during filming: a middle-aged, successful, manic-depressive family man going through a meltdown. The moment Foster let the public know what the film was about, the potential moviegoers would be reminded of Gibson’s personal mess! The reason Mel Gibson is a social outcast would come back to stare Foster’s audience in the face. And who really wants to repeat all of that on a night out at the movies?
So it was that I found myself sitting completely alone in the movie theater watching The Beaver. I don’t mind private screenings, but this time, I almost felt guilty. Was everyone else missing as a form of protest against Gibson? I settled in with an attempt at an open mind.
I won’t give a blow-by-blow account here of what I saw, but Foster has demonstrated in The Beaver that her intelligence and restraint as an actress has found a way to extend itself to the director’s chair. Gibson’s character is, really, perfect for his own situation of last year. Tortured and torturing his family with the hyperactivity and depression/shame that is common to serious manic-depressives, Gibson may not have had to “act” so much as to just be himself for the role. Certainly, he was convincing as a nearly washed up, middle-aged businessman with a creative streak who had come to the end of his rope.
He finds his bearings again through the use of a hand puppet, “The Beaver,” who becomes his alter ego, the voice he chooses to talk through to others—at home, at work, even on The Today Show with Matt Lauer. He hates himself so much that he wants a “clean slate” to forget himself and encounter the world through the brown, furry face at the end of his arm. Of course, all this means that everyone else has to dance to his tune. He tells his longsuffering wife, played by Foster, that she will need to be fully supportive of his new “therapy.” Willful individuals like Walter Black who have a mental or emotional problem often like to do things “their way” when finally conceding that they have problems.
So many questions emerge from this film that are worthy of a good worldview chew afterwards. For example, where does one draw the line when unconditional love for one’s spouse starts to hurt the children or oneself? Foster’s character adroitly finds the happy medium there, and therefore provides others in such situations with a role model of sorts.
Another issue on full display in this film is the effect of mental/emotional illness on others involved in the individual’s life. In a penetrating moment in the film, Walter’s older son, a young writer, has revealed some of his self-doubts on a piece of paper taped to his wall that Walter sees when his son is out of the room. The son’s note states that he hates his father, just like his father, Walter, hated his father. Where will grace break into this fatalistic cycle? Also, how much of Walter's illness is spiritual?
By accepting that he can’t solve his problem by himself and by rediscovering a family who loves him and wants him well again, Walter Black has a chance at a real, robust life again. Foster’s role—as both director and as Walter’s wife—is to show the wide range of expressions love has in its arsenal. Just when you think she has given up on Walter entirely (and who could blame her), Walter’s wife shows that, like God, she is willing to send out the lifeline one more time. Such acts of love are not one-time events but an overarching attitude of care for the other person—and a belief in whatever goodness God can spark within that person.
So go see The Beaver, perhaps taking a particularly difficult person in your life with you. Maybe they’ll catch the hint and you’ll get some inspiration.