This is a guest post by Dead Derrick.
In 2011, many dark dramas were gracing the screens of art house theaters. Films like “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Take Shelter,” “The Devil’s Double” and “The Woman” were making their way across the festival circuit with big buzz behind them. However, there’s one film that’s far more disturbing than any of those films. I speak of Jodie Foster’s directorial effort “The Beaver!”
Why would I be writing about a drama on a horror website? Because this film easily could be taken as an unintentional psychological horror flick.
Meet Walter Black. He’s a depressed toy company CEO who’s seriously contemplating suicide after his wife leaves him and takes the kids. After trying to kill himself, Walter stumbles across a beaver hand puppet that just happened to be lying in a dumpster. Then, seemingly, in a split second, Walter develops a split personality disorder (because apparently that’s how that psychological condition works). Now, Walter has a beaver puppet named… wait for it… the Beaver! So imaginative.
Much like egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin in “What About Bob,” Walter uses the hand puppet as his means to communication. However, unlike Marvin, Walter is not trained in treating mental health problems, so even though he walks around touting a card that announces that the Beaver is a therapeutic puppet, it’s really not solving any of his problems. It’s just a symptom of his psychosis.
Using the Beaver a mouthpiece to magically fix his broken family situation and bond with his children, Walter’s life is suddenly booming thanks to the Beaver. Little does Walter know that the Beaver is watching… waiting… for his time to draw near!
Can you see how much that plot synopsis sounded like a horror film? Would it be any surprise to describe it as a quirky comedy? Well, neither of those are the case, as “The Beaver” is touted as a serious drama tackling alcoholism and depression. In its stupid backwards way of tacking such a complex mental illness, “The Beaver” insults to the viewer’s intelligence, and is highly offensive to anyone who’s ever suffered from a mental issue.
“The Beaver” boils the entire essence of one man’s struggle to come to terms with immense loss into a story about a chump that needs a puppet to communicate with the outside world, whom then struggles to rid himself of that very puppet once he realizes that its taken over his life.
In a move that desperately cries, “Fuck it! I don’t have a career to speak of anymore,” Mel Gibson plays Walter, a poor, alcoholic, down on his luck salesman. However instead of playing him as a sympathetic character, he instead decides to make him as unlikable as possible. I understand that we’re supposed to take into consideration that he’s suffering from severe depression, but it also helps if we see the goodness in this man before being expected to automatically care about his puppety plight.
The rest of the cast don’t necessarily sell their roles either, with director/actor Jodie Foster being unusually accepting of her husband’s new self prescribed treatment. She’s so enamored with the Beaver, it’s frightening. When she tries to have a tearful conversation about fighting for his recovery while the dead lifeless eyes of the Beaver stare at her from mere feet away, you can’t help but wonder what mental state she is in. Even more strange is how his professional workers welcome a new brand of beaver products that the Beaver informs them that they are going to make. (That latter statement sounded really dirty, but they’re children’s toys, I promise.)
“The Beaver” is a surreal trip into the Stepford Wives land, with no one even batting an eye at how bizarre and unhinged Walter has become. This in itself, is why it is more like a horror film than anything else.
Three severely underrated horror films revolving around crazy people who have a split personality that takes over an inanimate object are “Magic” (a ventriloquist dummy), “Pin” (a medical doll) and “Love Object” (a sex toy). Each of those films contains a frightening doll or puppet that becomes a scary, threatening character in spite of the fact that the only reason that they are agents of darkness is that a mentally unstable person is throwing their emotions into that lifeless hunk of plastic and making them real.
Instead of making the Beaver a comical outlet for Walter to use to tell people the truth, Jodie Foster made the Beaver a fuzzy villain for the ages. Which is OK. There are plenty of horror films out there about evil puppets. The problem is, it wasn’t intended to be that way. This film is meant to be taken seriously. It’s not meant to be something that scares the hell out of the audience and elicits nervous laughter, and yet it manages to do both.
There are scenes in this movie where the Beaver (voiced by Mel Gibson doing his best Michael Caine impression) gets downright violent. He smacks Mel in the middle of a dinner with Jodie Foster to reinsert himself into a conversation that he was rudely taken out of (by being placed under the table), he beats up Walter in a hotel fight, and there’s even a hilarious bit where Walter tries to get on the phone with his wife, but the Beaver creepily appears over his shoulder and stops him.
With all these crazy hijinks, there’s only one way that Walter can rid himself of the buck-toothed menace… Yeah, we thought that he was going to set it on fire. But he didn’t. (Instead, this movie turns into a crazy torture porn flick in the third act.)
WARNING SPOILER! HUGE SPOILER!
He cuts his fucking arm off! *gasp*
That’s right. This man takes a saw and cuts his arm off at the elbow, thus ridding himself of the Beaver once and for all, while simultaneously bringing himself back into the good graces of his family, of whom don’t seem nearly as concerned as they should be that their father/husband just chopped of a limb to be rid of a children’s toy. There’s even a little funeral held for the Beaver and Walter’s arm with their own little hand-crafted coffin.
Now that I’ve explained the general plot of “The Beaver,” it’s time to explain why this film doesn’t work. The premise behind the movie doesn’t exactly lend itself to drama. It could have been a quirky feel-good family friendly comedy about a depressed man’s self-discovery and recovery back to his family with some heart-warming moments to be had. That’s because the concept of “The Beaver” actually sound pretty damned funny when you take it on face value. I mean, there are tons and tons of videos in which puppets play a huge part of the proceedings.
One of my favorite Key & Peele comedy skits features a prison psychiatrist using a puppet named Lil’ Homey in his therapy sessions, and it appears that Lil’ Homey might have a life of his own.
This idea would be really stupid and cheesy as a straight-faced drama. As a five-minute skit, it’s friggin’ hysterical and lends itself toward some really dark humor.
That’s the main problem behind “The Beaver.” The premise doesn’t lend itself well towards a drama, and when you’re treating the material as this dark, depressing stuff, then you’re more likely to wind up with the horror material that was discussed early on with the likes of “Magic” and “Pin.” A climax involving severed limbs doesn’t exactly lend itself to a serious family drama either, especially when they’re treated in such a silly way (coffin and all). It’s also worth noting that if the Beaver found its way to Walter’s other arm…then we’d have “The Beaver 2: Electric Boogaloo” in 3-D.
Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson may be working on that sequel as we speak. However, that seems unlikely given that “The Beaver” only made 6.4 of its 21 million budget back. The whole movie is a dam shame (see what I did there?).
Dead Derrick, aka Derrick Carter, writes movie reviews on his website For the Love of Celluloid. When he isn’t ranting about stupid beaver themed melodramas, he’s busy watching and reviewing movies and herding sheep at the local supermarket. Don’t ask. You really don’t want to know how the sheep got into that store.