Film review: The Beaver

USA / United Arab Emirates 2011

Film still for Film review: The Beaver

Reviewed by Nicolas Rapold


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Suburban America, the present. Walter Black, head of a toy company, is in a deep depression that leads to his moving out of the family home. After a drunken attempt at suicide, he finds a beaver hand-puppet, which allows him to function – he communicates through the puppet, in a Cockney accent. He returns home and is welcomed by his wife Meredith and younger son Henry, but not by sarcastic teenage son Porter.

Porter, who ghost writes term papers for money, agrees to write a graduation speech for valedictorian Norah, an association that turns into dating. Walter returns to work, accompanied by the puppet at all times, and launches a beaver-themed woodworking set which becomes a bestseller. Porter and Norah go on a date that goes well until he takes her graffiti-tagging (an old pastime of hers) and brings up the subject of her dead brother. Meredith baulks at Walter’s bringing his puppet to their anniversary dinner, which ends with his freaking out and storming off. She then has to pick up Porter from jail after the police interrupt his graffiti-tag date with Norah. Learning that Walter’s puppet wasn’t prescribed by a doctor as he claimed, Meredith moves out, taking Henry and Porter with her.

Walter has a violent altercation with his puppet. Sales of his woodworking toy decline after his erratic public appearances. Walter saws off his hand, with the puppet; during rehabilitation he is reunited with his family. Reconciled with Porter, Norah delivers his pessimistic speech. Walter and his family are together, and happy.


To the gallery of fake noses, fat-suits, age makeup and other outlandish actorly handicaps, add perhaps the oddest one of all: a natty, ratty beaver glove-puppet, permanently affixed to the hand of famously unfiltered fallen star Mel Gibson. It is one of the more unusual ‘committed’, ridiculous performances and, in its by-the-numbers story of marital and teenage dysfunction, like a deadpan parody.

Gibson stars, looking suitably haggard but no less energetic, as Walter Black, a shattered family man and CEO of a toy company (named, in an odd biblical echo, JerryCo) who uses a glove-puppet to engage with the world. In an introduction that could be goofily scored to a lugubrious one-man band, the despair of Walter’s motel-room exile from the family home is established and, just as quickly, dispelled through the serendipity of a dumpster discovery: ‘the Beaver’ becomes Walter’s entire public personality; at home and work, he hands out cards that announce it as his new prescription therapy.

Doomed redemption follows, resembling a comedy less in its sense of humour than in its arbitrary on-message rise-and-falls and Mad Libs character traits (in Kyle Killen’s debut screenplay). Walter’s wife and rollercoaster designer Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directs) warily accepts, then embraces Walter’s return, until suddenly the prospect of an anniversary dinner with the Beaver in attendance pushes her over the edge. Likewise, Walter’s son Porter (sharp Anton Yelchin), a term-paper ghost writer, wins, loses and wins again the fancies of his stiff, plain client Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a valedictorian who can’t write, was busted for graffiti-tagging and mourns her dead brother. Somewhere along the way Walter also invents a woodworking set that’s a bestseller until the craze conveniently evaporates.

Gibson and Foster treat the story and its device – the Beaver tosses out seemingly improvised language (postcoitally: “Rest up, you delicious little tart. There’s more where that came from”) –with a straight face, though Meredith is allowed to proclaim that it’s “insane”. And perhaps Gibson is one of the few actors who could dive into such material without floundering on screen. A dedicated entertainer (watch him throw himself into dreck like What Women Want as if he’s Gene Kelly), he’s not about to treat a movie-length therapy exercise as a throwaway. His puppetry is so detailed that the Beaver always reacts even when they are out of focus in the background, to the point of panting after the couple’s marathon sexual reunion.

Walter’s depression is so deep that the kernel of a serious movie does lie within The Beaver: there’s something genuinely uncomfortable about Walter’s total projection of personality, implying an utterly hollowed sense of self. You do indeed find your eye split between puppet and Walter, who has the worn-out leftovers of the panic and nerviness that served Gibson well in better days. It echoes the split between Foster’s respectful direction and the unorthodox material, which briefly becomes a bewildering dissonance when Walter finally reaches bloody rock bottom.

In that sense, Foster’s curious movie is at once a realisation of the kind of ‘risky’ script that never gets made and an unwitting signifier of typical Hollywood contrivance. Mel Gibson and his hand-puppet, going through the motions, become a physical embodiment of any given award-courting, jaw-dropping creative choice that you’re expected to accept and embrace, even as The Beaver preserves some smidgen of distinction through the mindboggling politeness with which Foster presents its weirdness.

See also

The Passion of the Christ reviewed by Mark Kermode (April 2004)

Puppet love: Tony Rayns on Kitano Takeshi’s Dolls (June 2003)

Signs reviewed by Kim Newman (October 2002)

Mother courage: Linda Ruth Williams on Jodie Foster and Panic Room (May 2002)

Celebrity reviewed by Leslie Felperin (July 1999)

Payback reviewed by Nick Roddick (April 1999)


Jodie Foster
Produced by
Steve Golin
Keith Redmon
Ann Ruark
Written by
Kyle Killen
Director of Photography
Hagen Bogdanski
Lynzee Klingman
Production Designer
Mark Friedberg
Music by/Score Produced by/Piano Solos
Marcelo Zarvos
Sound Mixer
Jimmy Sabat
Costume Designer
Susan Lyall
Mel Gibson
Jodie Foster
Anton Yelchin
Jennifer Lawrence
Cherry Jones
Riley Thomas Stewart
Zachary Booth
Michael Rivera
Matt Lauer
Jon Stewart
Terry Gross
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011