By Eric Plaag
In the past three months, I have seen two films in which the plot hinges on a main character’s anguished decision over whether to cut off his own arm. The first of these, 127 Hours, involves a solo hiker whose foolish blunders leave him trapped at the bottom of a crevasse with his hand pinned beneath a boulder. After days without clean water and with time running out, the hiker uses a dull-edged pocketknife to sever his arm just beneath the elbow. Watching that three-minute sequence may be the most grueling, nerve-rattling, visceral experience I’ve ever had in the theater, but I loved it, too, and found myself begging for him to keep it together and complete the task because I knew it was his only way out.
In the second film, The Beaver, from writer Kyle Killen and director Jodie Foster, the audience again knows that taking that arm off is the only way out for the character in question. Excision will mean freedom from circumstances that are out of control and otherwise irreversible. Without even hinting at which character is involved or why, suffice it to say that seeing that arm come off (or not actually seeing it, as is the case in The Beaver) comes as something of a relief to the audience, rather than a necessary horror, and not for any of the good reasons found in 127 Hours.
I make this comparison because the distinction between these two films suggests an explanation as to what is so palpably wrong with The Beaver from beginning to end. 127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, whose 2003 ordeal was heavily covered in the press and on television and remains familiar to the national consciousness. Most folks who walk into that film do so anticipating that traumatic amputation, and yet its ultimate arrival is harrowing beyond all description. The Beaver, by contrast, is a fictional story from an original screenplay. Audiences have no expectation of an amputation or any preconceptions of how that story will play out, not even from the trailer. And yet there is very little that is truly dramatic about this moment of amputation—nothing that makes us wince or turn away, nothing that makes us empathize with the character’s agony, nothing in fact that makes us rack our brains trying to identify a different, better course of action. Perhaps the reason for this absence of dramatic tension at the film’s climax lies in the fact that Foster packs in so many false dramatic twists and turns beforehand that we no longer know what it is we’re supposed to feel when something important actually happens.
This is not to suggest that the premise of The Beaver is not a compelling one. In the hands of a competent writer and director, the story of a down-on-his-luck toymaker (Mel Gibson as Walter Black) who feels disconnected from his job and his family, then decides to find his way back to sanity by adopting the persona of a beaver hand puppet, would probably be a stunningly brilliant film. Add to this a secondary and in many respects parallel story involving Walter’s self-destructive teenage son (Anton Yelchin as Porter Black), who has fifty Post-It notes stuck to his wall documenting the irritating similarities that he shares with his father and hopes to erase, and there might seem to be plenty of emotional territory to explore in a creative, unique manner. Instead, we get material so maddeningly trite and bathetic that when one character explained the dramatic situation by saying, “Eventually, what seemed strange becomes common,” my wife Teresa actually screamed back at the screen, “Exactly!”
To be clear, Gibson is not to be blamed for any of these missteps. Working within the limits of his material, Gibson’s performance as Walter may be one of the best I have seen so far in 2011. Alternating between his desperate, melancholy self and his confident, rejuvenating beaver persona, Gibson deftly navigates a difficult transition from suicidal failure as a husband and father to media darling with a hand puppet, all the while building a frenzied mania whose humor and bold statements slowly belie that Walter is not just depressed but is in fact much more seriously ill. It’s a slow burn, but it’s also a frighteningly effective one, largely because Walter is the one character with whom we can sympathize, even in his worst moments of madness.
This latter issue betrays the principal problem with the script and Foster’s direction. Walter’s mental illness is never taken seriously, not even by Walter’s wife Meredith (Foster), who dismisses his beaver routine first as a gimmick, then as selfishness dressed up in the pejorative label of “illness,” then as a distraction, then finally as an insult to their collective memory as a couple and family. This disconnect from Walter’s earnest but cross-wired attempts at addressing what other story devices tell us are his long, genetic history of mental illness, as well as his family’s insistence that Walter and his beaver are just a giant pain in the ass, only serve to undercut any sympathy or respect we might have for the film’s other characters. When Walter and Porter come to physical blows late in the film, for example, Meredith sides with Porter, even though it is her thankless, self-absorbed son who initiates the attack. Likewise, when Walter appears on national television to deliver a scathing monologue that includes some of the only right-sounding material in the film, Porter is mortified with embarrassment, while Meredith can only muster disgust for the man who is no longer the pliable husband who at one time sustained the pretty façade that was supposed to be their life together. Perhaps Meredith’s concentration on perpetuating this family drama, rather than seeking viable solutions that would heal all of them, has something to do with the overwrought symbolism of Meredith being a roller coaster designer (and no, I’m not making that up). Magnifying her repugnance as a human being, partner, and mother is the fact that Meredith is as selfish toward her children as she is with Walter. When their younger child is viciously bullied at elementary school and explains that all he wants is to be invisible, Meredith doesn’t recognize that perhaps he feels exactly the way Walter and Porter do. Instead, she dismisses his misery as a flaw.
The Beaver’s final scenes ultimately turn on that aforementioned amputation and the secondary story involving Porter and his love interest, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). A popular cheerleader and valedictorian who Foster would have us believe was once expelled from the eighth grade for tagging in the local warehouse district, Norah is hiding yet another Deep Dark Secret that threatens to derail her relationship with Porter, even though anyone in their town with access to a newspaper or a reasonably functioning short-term memory would know what’s making her brood so much. Even if we are to set aside these and many of the other ludicrous details in The Beaver, there is the problem of Foster using this secondary story as both a MacGuffin and a virtual soapbox for telling the audience what it should take from The Beaver, none of which we actually feel inclined to take from it. Norah and Porter know one another strictly because she’s hired him to write her valedictory speech, depending on his reputation as a skilled essay ghostwriter for fellow students. When her moment at the podium actually arrives, though, and she begins to deliver Porter’s artfully crafted speech, Norah suddenly goes off script and resorts to platitudes neither she nor any other character in the film has earned the right to express, all in an attempt to make her transformation appear genuine, profound, and universal.
This is a serious problem in American cinema, this need to chart out What the Story Really Means, just in case the audience didn’t get it the first three times around. All of this unnecessary exposition, as well as the film’s long-telegraphed emotional resolution between Porter and Walter, comes after that unseen amputation, leaving audiences to wonder if the now one-armed character recognizes the absurdity of Norah’s platitudes, given that the script forces him to embrace them so willingly and against character. I cannot imagine a more torturous existence than having to live in a world where being surrounded by shallow people who spout saccharine material is the payoff for having made such a supreme emotional and physical sacrifice. A person would have to possess a sense of duty and loyalty beyond all reason to so gleefully embrace such a fate. Then again, perhaps this is by design, a hook to get us to return for the sequel: The Beaver 2: ‘Tis But a Scratch.
Theaters, 2 out of 5 stars