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If there is one thing Mel Gibson understands, it is damnation. The once-lauded actor was able to bring the concept to life in The Passion of the Christ, before the scandals that knocked him from his Hollywood throne and moral pulpit. In The Beaver, directed by and co-starring Jodie Foster, Gibson portrays a man crippled at first by regret and depression, then by the domination of a strange creature that was to be his salvation.
Walter Black (Gibson) lies on his bed, paralyzed from what doctors diagnose as depression, although medical labels are inadequate for his existential crisis. The toy company he runs has withered in his absence. His wife Meredith (Foster), supportive at first, now feels she must choose between caring for her husband and protecting their two sons from watching his destruction. His teen son Porter (Anton Yelchin) lives in terror of becoming like his dad. Little Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) just wishes to become invisible.
As Walter fails even at suicide, he is rescued by a gruff, dominating, stuffed beaver. This creature looks like a puppet on Walter's hand, but to Walter he is perfectly real and embodies his salvation. However, what seems like salvation becomes its own form of enslavement.
There is a reason why Gibson once reigned at the top of Hollywood's A-list. His acting is spectacular, more so because he plays two characters at once. The audience sees Gibson's lips move as he voices the Beaver. However, even as Gibson screams the puppet's angry words, his face, as Walter, melts with sorrow and humiliation. It's a wonder to behold.
The other actors keep pace with Gibson, especially Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence as a teen love interest. The thick, meaty, rich, dark film offers only a few moments of gallows humor to lighten the mood. Rated PG-13, it implies sex between husband and wife and has one violent, off-camera scene, but is absolutely not a movie for children due to its intense subject matter.
The film asks more questions than it offers answers. Science, psychology, and self-help are dismissed as inadequate to solve Walter's existential question. No easy answer is given except the willingness to fight, at extreme cost, for his life. That is surely something Gibson understands as well.