By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 23, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
The Beaver
Credit: Ken Regan

Mel Gibson looks like hell in The Beaver. That's a compliment. Puffy, pasty, haggard, and dragging his feet with a heaviness that suggests each step is exhausting, Gibson fully conveys the suicidal depression that ails his aptly named character, Walter Black. The commitment is all the more unnerving to anyone who knows anything about the star whose familiar features we are invited to study in unflinching close-up. Which, let's face it, is everyone who will see The Beaver: This is high-quality work from a professional who, news reports have suggested, has recently sunk to terrible lows in his nonprofessional life.

One can conjecture what techniques of Method acting and recesses of psychological complication led this man to play this part this way at this time. Or (why not?) one can take this odd, gnarled picture — a captivating premise from Austin-based writer Kyle Killen, and his first produced feature screenplay — at its fictional worth. Gibson's Walter is a tormented middle-aged man whose severe mental illness is ruining his work life as a successful toy manufacturer. His affliction is also destroying his home life as the father of two sons and husband to his concerned wife, Meredith (played with her reliable elegant briskness by Jodie Foster, who also directs). Depression has stranded Walter at the end of his rope, all but literally. He might have finally succeeded at suicide if he hadn't found a discarded hand puppet in the unlikely ? form of a beaver — cue sniggering from the kids on South Park. Who would have predicted that something about putting that puppet on his left hand and talking as the beaver in a beaver-by-way-of?Michael Caine accent would allow Walter to break from his distressed old self and start afresh?

It's crazy stuff, no doubt. Walter's wife thinks so, try as she does to support her husband's recovery. His older son, Porter (a great live-wire performance from the consistently wonderful Anton Yelchin), thinks so too, and hates his father all the more because he sees signs of the old man's illness in himself. (Besides, Porter is anxious to appear normal to an alpha classmate he likes, coolly played by Jennifer Lawrence.) Only Walter's younger son (Riley Thomas Stewart) likes the puppet because, Hey! A talking beaver! Anyway, clearly something must give: How long can Walter run a business or make love to Meredith with a clod of brown cloth covering one hand?

And yet right there, right at that point of fascinating tension, The Beaver goes soft. It turns into something not nearly as interesting as its dark first half. It becomes, in the end, a weird but oddly traditional story about a family in peril, and about an angry son, and about a wife/mother's struggle to protect her (unusual) loved ones by any means necessary. Which is to say, The Beaver becomes less Walter's tale — an adventurous character study by a passionate Mel Gibson — and more the kind of material Jodie Foster has been drawn to, both as an actor and as a director, in variations as different but linked as Little Man Tate, Panic Room, Nell, and The Brave One. Those stories are nice and all — but why go to all the trouble of introducing a beaver and then take away the power of its impressive teeth? B?

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