Antidepressants haven’t worked. Nor have self-help books or therapy. So can a beaver puppet save Walter Black when all else has failed?
Not only have Walter’s attempts to manage his crippling clinical depression not worked (all he wants to do is sleep), this disheveled fiftysomething husband and father has failed in every other major life category. His longsuffering wife, Meredith, knows that all too well. So do his two sons, Porter (who’s in high school) and Henry (who’s in grade school). Even his employees at the struggling toy manufacturer JerryCo are in on that little secret as their business slowly runs into the ground.
So when Meredith decides enough is enough and sends Walter packing, he responds by buying a box full of booze … and then failing yet again—twice—to kill himself in a hotel room.
Along the way, something strange happens. While emptying his car trunk to make room for the liquor, Walter discovers a beaver puppet in a dumpster and puts it on … for no apparent reason. He’s wearing it, in fact, when he attempts suicide. And when he wakes up, The Beaver is not only present, but it begins to coach him out of his mental fog. “I’m The Beaver, Walter,” the puppet says in a British accent. “And I’m here to save your g‑‑d‑‑ned life.”
The Beaver’s not doing the talking, of course. It’s Walter creating a new alter ego—or split personality. And as Walter’s depression-damaged personality recedes, The Beaver’s takes over, and things begin to change. Little Henry loves that The Beaver wants to play with him, something Walter hasn’t done in a long time (if ever). And Meredith loves that her husband, or some deeply buried part of him at least, seems to be coming back to life. At work, The Beaver is nothing short of an entrepreneurial wunderkind, turning the troubled toy company around in near-miraculous fashion.
But crawling out from beneath the oppression of depression, we learn, isn’t as easy as putting a puppet on. Porter wants nothing to do with his increasingly erratic father. Meredith starts to worry about the strength of the puppet’s influence. And when The Beaver puts Walter on notice that he’s not just a friendly, furry helper, that he is in fact taking over forever, Walter has some choices to make about what his future is going to look like … and whether his furry new friend is coming along for the ride.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Despite this film’s bizarre premise, The Beaver proffers some weighty reflections about the nature of depression and severe mental illness, specifically how they undermine and can ultimately destroy both individuals and families if left unchecked. Particularly poignant is how Porter strives to be everything his father isn’t. (He has 49 sticky notes affixed to his bedroom wall describing the ways he’s like his father—so he can work on changing those traits.) In the process, he strikes up a relationship with a girl named Norah, his class’s valedictorian. Norah—who has hired Porter to write her graduation speech—is cloaking a mountain of grief and insecurity herself, the result of her brother’s death by overdose. Porter tries to help her break through that grief, initially with disastrous results for both of them. Eventually, though, they do manage to help each other.
In her speech—which she admits she didn’t write—she talks about confronting a “lie” that everyone (parents, teachers, doctors) tells: The lie that everything is going to be OK. Norah labels this bit of wishful thinking a lie because bad things will eventually happen to everybody. In fact, everything is not going to be OK, and we need to know how to get through those moments. In the end, she says, the best thing we can do is to choose relationship instead of isolation, to reach out to those closest to us for love and support.
As for Meredith, she desperately wants her husband to get better. But twice in the film, she comes to the painful conclusion that it’s not going to happen. The first time, she asks Walter to leave, in part because she feels his inability to deal with his depression (and his alcoholism) is damaging their boys. The second time, after The Beaver fully assumes command, she tells the furry interloper she wants a relationship with her husband, not the British-accented “imposter” who’s virtually taken him over. She pleads with her husband, telling him, “I have to believe that you’re coming back.” Throughout, Meredith is deeply conscientious as she tries to help her two boys navigate the relational wreckage.
And Walter, well, some part of him is still desperately trying to reclaim who he once was. Twice we see him try to talk, try to tell the truth, but The Beaver won’t let him. And this causes Walter, in his place of profound illness, to go to extreme lengths to break The Beaver’s hold on him. The extremity to which he journeys is physically destructive and very dangerous, but watching Walter fight for his life can still be seen as nothing less than inspirational. We get the sense that Walter (who ultimately ends up as a resident in a mental institution) might finally be able to break the grip of the illness he suffers from.
Porter begins to see, perhaps for the first time, that his father is as much a broken man as he is a failed one. That with time, there might yet be hope for a better outcome for their family.
Walter and Meredith’s deteriorating marriage is briefly reinvigorated upon The Beaver’s arrival. A montage of several brief sex scenes pictures them in bed together. And The Beaver makes a few mildly suggestive remarks about it. One scene shows the couple in a steamed-up shower as they kiss and embrace; the camera pulls back and shows their bare backs (and The Beaver).
We see Meredith wearing a shirt and no bra. Norah wears a cleavage-revealing shirt. Porter and Norah kiss twice.
Walter tries to hang himself on a shower rod. He then climbs onto the railing of his 10th-floor room’s balcony. But he doesn’t jump—The Beaver’s first words startle him and he falls backward. He then nearly passes out on the floor and accidentally manages to pull a massive TV onto his head.
In moments of frustration, Porter repeatedly rams his head into his bedroom wall—hard. The head-shaped depression in the drywall informs us he’s done so many times before. We see him at one point thrust his head clear through the wall to the outside. At the very end of his rope, he also attacks Walter and The Beaver, slamming both against a brick wall.
Walter eventually attacks The Beaver, too, in a massive throwdown that destroys furniture and leaves Walter’s face bruised and bloodied. And that’s just a prelude to what comes next. In a desperate effort to rid himself of The Beaver, Walter cuts his arm off with a power saw in his garage. (We hear him switch the power on and his subsequent screams.) Porter finds his dad and takes him to the hospital. (Both are covered in blood.) We see Walter’s stump of an arm wrapped in a bandage.
One f-word and about a half-dozen s-words. Characters’ take Jesus’ name in vain three or four times and pair “god” with “d‑‑n” that many times as well. The Beaver trots out some British vulgarities, including “bloody” and “b-llocks.” We hear a few uses each of “h‑‑” and “b‑‑ch.” Crude references to defecation and genitals are made, and “douche” is blurted out as an insult.
Walter rifles through several prescription medicine containers and takes (presumably) some antidepressants. He buys a box full of liquor and proceeds to get very drunk—alone and in a depressed state. He and Meredith drink wine with meals. A high schooler makes a quip about buying weed. As mentioned, we hear that Norah’s brother died of an overdose.
Porter writes school papers for his classmates—and charges them for it. When one of his clients, Hector, is accused of cheating, Porter tries in vain to cover his tracks by setting up a dummy website and instructing Hector to say he bought the paper there. (Hector, to his credit, eventually confesses everything truthfully; Porter suffers significant consequences for his unethical choices when he gets a rejection notice from the university he’d hoped to attend).
In a misguided attempt to get Norah to talk about her brother and embrace her gift for painting again (a gift mostly expressed through illegal graffiti), Porter takes her to a rundown section of town and spray-paints “R.I.P. Brian.” (The pair is subsequently arrested for vandalism.)
The Beaver pretends to defecate.
On paper, Mel Gibson’s latest “comeback” film sounds like a bad joke and a setup for an epically wacky failure: A depressed and despairing middle-aged father tries to stave off mental illness through … a beaver puppet? After Gibson’s own highly publicized personal meltdowns and alcohol-fueled rants in the last few years, it’s virtually impossible to watch Walter Black’s flirtations with his faltering sanity and not recall Mel’s real-life erratic behavior.
When asked in an interview with indiewire.com whether audiences would be able to look past Mel’s past, director Jodie Foster (who also stars as Meredith) said, “I don’t know what to say to people, it’s a question, Can you put aside the private things that you know about him because they’ve been exploited on the Internet? Can you put that aside when you’re watching an artist? And I don’t know, that’s a good question.”
The story ends with a sense that even in the toughest cases, there may yet be hope and light on the other side of a long, dark tunnel. So maybe it will also help change moviegoers’ minds about Mel. But that’s not really the reason we go to movies—to analyze their stars. So it’s also important to end here with a reminder that while deep and challenging and layered and incredibly nuanced, this is also an idiosyncratic and at times profanely, painfully raw movie. Its primary point? That depression and other mental illnesses are devastating … and need to be treated, not just tolerated. They’re too complicated and too overwhelming for that.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.