Joshua Reviews Jodie Foster’s The Beaver [SXSW 2011 Review]

Sometimes, the most gifted artists also happen to be the most troubled.

A perfect example of this would be the ever talented actor-turned-director Mel Gibson.   Over the past few years, not only has the icon become one of the most talented filmmakers around, but also an absolute social pariah.   Giving the occasional on screen performance, audiences have been asked to separate person from the art that the said person makes.

However, with his latest turn, he’s seemingly taking on many personal issues full on, without much in the way of subtlety.

The latest directorial effort from actress Jodie Foster (who also stars in the film as Gibson’s wife), and follows the relationship between the two two-time Oscar winners, as Gibson’s lead attempts to re-discover who he truly is, with the help of an extreme therapy technique, a beaver puppet that becomes a proxy for the man’s inner self.   With a cavalcade of demons stuck in the closet that is his past, the man, Walter Black, must come to grips with his fledgling relationships with his wife and son, all while trying to hit the top again at his toy company.

This story of self-discovery is not only the perfect film for Gibson to take on at this point in his career and life, it may be the definitive performance from an actor who has seen better days in the past decade.

A stunningly poetic and dark character study, the cast is where this film shines through.   Gibson gives a top level performance here, that is both a technical wonder, and also a beautiful look into a man slowly losing himself as his relationships begin to fall apart.   A dark and troubled man, Walter Black is the closest thing to Mel Gibson the man that we can get without creating a carbon copy, and while some may be turned off by the actor as a person, there is no doubt that this is one of his best performances in quite some time.  There is so much heart given in this performance, and for a relatively cartoonish man, this is a heartbreakingly subtle and subdued turn, often relying solely on facial expressions, which are aided deftly by Gibson’s character filled mug.   He’s an aging star, and as his face begins to show quite a bit of age, he is becoming more reminiscent of silent film actors in his ability to emote without speaking.   All in all, it’s the best performance of this still very young year.

Rounding out the cast are Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin and the ever wonderful Jennifer Lawrence, in her biggest turn since her star making performance in Winter’s Bone.   Foster is a bit underwhelming here, as while she gives a fine performance, the character itself seems to be a bit schizophrenic.   Making brash decisions without much in the way of reasoning, the performance is believable, but doesn’t have the depth or heart that this film oozes in every other aspect.   Yelchin is great here as Gibson and Foster’s son, and truly shines in the interchanges with Gibson, as their relationship is wholly believable.   It’s a touching relationship that really adds quite a bit of emotion to this film.   Lawrence is also great as Yelchin’s main squeeze, but falls a bit flat near the end, which is more of an issue with the screenplay than her performance, which is overall really fantastic.

As a director, Foster is on a whole new level here.   A visually intriguing film, Foster is able to give this touching and powerful narrative the heft that it truly deserves, while also making it visually and aesthetically compelling. With a mixture of seemingly multiple film stocks, the cinematography is fantastic here, and while it may be a bit monochromatic, the sense of style and atmosphere fit this narrative perfectly.   A wonderful soundtrack plays the backdrop to this story, and while the Kyle Killen screenplay may be a bit weak, it’s ultimately a narrative that is both compelling intellectually, as well as visually.

That said, the film does have a few issues.   Ultimately lacking a compelling female lead, the film also falters in the final act, which is both paced poorly, and far too on the nose for an otherwise subtle film.   Feeling as though a good thirty minutes had been cut, the narrative is compelling, but feels a bit incomplete and uneven, which comes through in the storytelling and the pacing as a whole.

As a whole, Jodie Foster’s latest directorial piece is a darkly poetic and poetically dark look at a man on the verge of a true mental collapse, trying to pull his life back together.   More than just a performance from Mel Gibson, Gibson gives a piece of acting that is arguably not only one of the best in his career, but also one that touches on many of his personal issues.   Coming from a truly dark place, this film is much more than a run of the mill character study, as it’s a heartfelt piece of narrative filmmaking with more than its fair share of heart.   While it may have issues, it’s telling that they stem from the fact that we as a viewer want to see more.


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