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Nerve at SXSW Film 2011: Mel Gibson in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver

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"People love a trainwreck… when it's not happening to them." — Walter Black (Mel Gibson), The Beaver

Trainwreck was the phrase in question last night at the world premiere of Jodie Foster's latest directorial (and co-starring) effort, The Beaver. How could a drama with a snicker-inducing title, starring an allegedly psycho tabloid punchline with a puppet on his hand, be anything but a fiasco?

Taking the stage to introduce her film, even Jodie Foster seemed defensive and uncertain about the audience's potential response. Hidden behind dark glasses — not as part of a Jack Nicholson impression, the writer/director joked, but rather to cover up a nasty case of eye yuck — Foster stressed that The Beaver was not a comedy, but rather a beautiful story that she truly loved, and one that she hoped we'd accept on its own terms.

As the lights went down, I wondered if I and the audience could ever put all of Gibson's baggage aside and judge the film purely on its merits. Well, the answer's complicated, because The Beaver is one of those rare and fascinating amalgams like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Husbands and Wives, and The Wrestler, where our knowledge of the actors' private lives is inextricably linked to our perceptions of their on-screen performances.

In this case, Gibson starts off with the haunted, hollow-eyed expression of a man beyond redemption. His character, Walter Black, is falling apart at work, and his long-suffering wife (Foster, great as always) has decided to kick her shell of a husband out of the house for the sake of their children. Walter has tried everything to snap out of his seemingly bottomless depression, all to no avail. And so, one night — after loading up on liquor and, as a drunken afterthought, rescuing a fuzzy beaver puppet from a dumpster — he simply decides to end his suffering once and for all by hurling himself off a hotel balcony.

But then the beaver stops him. Or, to be more specific, Walter has a psychotic break. Talking to himself (and others) through the puppet in a tough-love Cockney accent reminiscent of the type of British gangster usually played by Ray Winstone, some fragment of Walter's subconscious resurfaces in a desperate "Hail Mary" pass of self-preservation.

All at once, things turn around for Walter, and for a while Foster embraces the high-concept goofiness of the premise, hilariously depicting exactly the sorts of weird and awkward scenarios one might expect from a man attempting to romance his wife and jumpstart his business with a fuzzy brown puppet on his hand. Eventually, though, we realize the humor of Walter's seeming puppet-enhanced recovery is a Trojan Horse. We laugh until we get used to the concept of the beaver, and then Foster pulls the rug out as the film suddenly turns darker and weirder than expected.

Because Walter hasn't been cured. Constantly talking through a puppet isn't normal — nor, the film implies, are other "quick fix" escapes like self-help books, drugs, or false online personas, which often slap mental Band-Aids over more serious psychological issues beneath the surface. We all need escape valves to help us deal with the pressures of life, but Foster's film raises intriguing questions about when and how reality should (and must) be confronted. For all his faults, Gibson possesses undeniable talent and onscreen charisma, and does a fantastic job in what's essentially a dual role as Walter and the deceptively charming "Beaver." His performance, supported by a smart script and a strong cast (including, in addition to those named above, a freshly-scrubbed Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone) ensures that The Beaver is legitimately worthy of attention no matter how questionable the whole thing seems.