Every list has to have an outcast – the film which divides. There are a few films out there which I often refer my friends to when they are becoming fledgling cinephiles. There are the regular choices (the Blade Runners, The Eternsal Sunshines, The Being John Malkovichs) But recently I have realised that there is a minuet gap between film curiosity and film fandom. There is a catalogue of ‘gateway’ cinema that will either make or break an up and coming film enthusiast; films such as Lars and the Real Girl, United 93, Grano Torino, and also my 3rd entry to the Shoe Box Classics series – The Beaver. Now The Beaver has become something of a marmite for critics. Some praise it up, whilst many poo-poo its ‘feeble’ attempts at reviving the careers of its director and lead actor. For me, The Beaver is a real leap for classic independent American cinema. It sits comfortably in the cannon of films such as Thomas McCarthy’s Win Win and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Films that prove outsider entertainment does not always have to be amateur or lacking in odes to classical cinema. And although the ink is barely dry on The Beaver’s promotional material (only recently has it finished theatrical release worldwide), I think a classic is a classic regardless of how new or old it is. The Beaver is destined to sink into obscurity. But for me, it will always be the sort of film id happily lend out to friends tweaking for something different. This is what makes a Shoe Box Classic.
Shoe Box Classics – #3 – The Beaver
Walter Black is very very VERY depressed. Heir to a crumbling toy manufacturer – Jerry Co (get it?), Walter does nothing but sleep and mope. So when he is chucked out by his weathered and exhausted wife, Walter is driven to the edge. After finding a curious beaver puppet in a store dumpster, Walter gets drunk and tries to kill himself. Suddenly, ‘the Beaver’ begins to talk, and before long this little brown muppet becomes Walter’s inner voice, his one and only shot at recovery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that The Beaver sounds like a ridiculous film, a thinly strung together vehicle for wannabe director Jodie Foster and outcast nut-job Mel Gibson. But in truth, this film is like a hybrid between Fight Club and As Good As It Gets. Rich with humour, melancholy, irony and honesty, The Beaver is at once extremely touching and rather disturbing. From the hilarity and bleakness of Walter’s failed suicides, to the desperation and frustration of Walter’s son Porter to distance himself from his father – The Beaver is constantly pulling you in two directions at once – a feeling which, incidentally, makes the ludicrous suddenly feel normal. So when the Beaver takes full control of Walter’s life, we as an audience begin to accept this inanimate toy as a living breathing character, and in the process, inadvertently grow to love him. This is the power of the film, the Beaver becomes a ‘bridge’ for the palette of emotions and experiences Foster endeavours to create – swirling them together and gently placing them upon the canvas of our hearts. One of the film’s main themes is improvement through creation – whether that be a beaver, notorious for construction, rebuilding Walter’s life and company or the creation of art rebuilding Norah’s (Porter’s love interest) courage. In addition to this breathtaking talent exhibited by Foster, she also flexes her he-she sized muscles as a director’s director; a filmy filmster, as it were. The Beaver is a film loaded with metaphors and visual cues. There is one particular shot where Meredith and the kids drive off, leaving Walter with the Beaver, and as the car leaves the frame it briefly reveals and out of focus pile of logs – Walter is literally ‘dam’ing himself in the illusion.
Much in the way that Towering Inferno would have been a pretty short film without the fire, or The Day After Tomorrow rather pointless without tsunamis, earthquakes and ice storm, The Beaver is a film magnified ten fold by the earth shattering presence of Mel Gibson. Say what you like about the man, but he is a prime example of why people actually bother to make films. Gibson takes the Beaver and not only creates a persona, but brings him to life – conflict and aggression playing simultaneous to Walter’s pain and puppy dog eyes. Gibson goes beyond creating a 3D character in Walter or the Beaver, he gives his everything, projecting himself into your heart, requesting empathy rather than demanding it. Gently playing with our emotions and minds throughout, at no point does he take a short cut within the performance – and for that he cements himself as a true cinematic icon. Supporting cast may not carry the power of Gibson’s performance, but Anton Yelchin as Porter, in particular, shows a spark of his on-screen father. This may be in no small means by the obvious connection director Jodie Foster endeavours to draw between father and son. This is, after all, a film about family and choosing to accept ourselves for the people we come from. Other notable performances come from Foster herself and the surprisingly pertinent Cherry Jonesas Walter’s co-worker. One particular scene of note is when the Beaver confesses to Jones that he is….real.
A beautiful little film that hits all the right notes. It treats something very complicated and messy, with the respect and wider view that it deserves. It may be the conflict between the film’s broader intentions and lean running time (91 minutes) which prove for my only niggle. At some points, The Beaver has to sacrifice one theme in turn for another, and this comes in the form of the ‘mourning’ back story of Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). Her story is a parallel to that of Walter’s, which makes it even more bitter that Porter is willing to help her, whilst ignoring the plight of his father. However, Foster does not give herself enough time and space to make this sub-plot really pop into position, leaving it somewhat empty in places. It might not get the Oscar recognition is deserves come next February (mainly because Hollywood hates Mel Gibson….their loss), but The Beaver is a rare treat that will easily claim a place in your list as top little big film of 2011.