Let’s talk about the real-life background of The Beaver for a moment. No, not how Mel Gibson’s trainwreck personal life dovetails oh-so-neatly with the material, but about the fact that Kyle Killen’s script was shopped around for years before Jodie Foster somehow glommed onto it and managed to pull the production together in a relatively short span of time when so many others either couldn’t or wouldn’t.
In his brief notes after the film’s SXSW premiere, Kenji Fujishima regrets that Luis Bunuel couldn’t take a crack at it. Bill Weber’s review for Slant places The Beaver in the context of Fight Club, and given David Fincher’s versatility, perhaps he might have done something interesting with the script. The premise and setups for the characters certainly seem specially-designed for the Sundance Screenwriters lab, laden with quirk and familiar typologies; the attempt to balance the suicidal despair and goofiness inherent in the idea of a man talking exclusively through his Cockney hand puppet seems like it might have been written with the stylings of Wes Anderson in mind — or any of the other faux-indie hipsters who try (and fail) to measure up to him. In short, it’s a script that could lend itself to many different kinds of interpretation, and any one of them would probably be as successful as that elicited by Jodie Foster. Which is to say that it’s a good film, but generic. As Nicolas Rapold notes in his review for Sight & Sound, Foster is an impeccably tasteful director, which means that a film about the messiness and imperfection inherent in the human character is rendered with as clean and tidy an eye as you could desire.
It’s rare that a film I rather enjoy provokes me to wonder how many alternate versions exist in alternate timelines, in which circumstances aligned in a slightly different way, leading to the film to be made by entirely different people. The frisson created by this speculation may be tangential to The Beaver as it exists, yet it’s the only way I can explain how nonspecific and anodyne the film feels. Which is particularly bizarre, since Gibson’s performance is about as raw and bare-throated as anything he’s done. Gibson’s screen presence has a unique quality in that his characters are so often like houses that have been constructed on the edge of a cliff, with one half dangling out over the clouds; he invites you in, but you feel that simply by walking through the front door, the precarious balance will be upset, and you and he and everything he’s conscientiously built will go tumbling, tumbling down. As a director, Foster must, by necessity, rein that in, yet its combustible quality is what fires the nervous energy of the film. Could another actor have done this role? Probably. Yet Gibson is inimitable. I can imagine the film being done any number of ways, but I can’t imagine that performance being given by anyone else.
Whatever allegorical or thematically suggestive aspects the film contains — it is tightly constructed and subtly filmed; Foster’s meticulousness does serve the film well — are as much due to the material as the construction of the filmmaking. I’ve tried to outline a dozen different ways to interpret the latent spiritual content of The Beaver, but I don’t think the film supports any of them in particular. (Christian viewers could probably make a strong connection between the film’s treatment of the flawed human experience and original sin, but that’s a whole other critique.) You could say it’s a weakness that the film doesn’t lend itself terribly well to deep readings, but it’s also a boon. With so much suggestive imagery, and with such sterling performances, the structure of the script allows the film to be continually interpreted, should the viewer choose to do so. Beyond the interpretive choices of the cast and filmmaking crew, I think the strength of The Beaver is in how it demurs on framing your reception of it. There are certainly limits to the different ways the film could be taken; some films thrive on ambiguity, while some derive their power from their bold assertiveness. Given that it’s a movie about depression, dysfunctional families, and the terrible abyss of a man driven to splinter his personality into a talking hand puppet, there’s a total absence of pretension. Foster and Gibson interpret the film as being primarily about the people in it. While The Beaver may be a bit nebulous because of its resistance to ambiguity or didacticism, its subtle, protean qualities make it all the more beguiling.☕