It's not often that a popular actor sunk in disgrace and surrounded by media and movie-biz hostility can mount a comeback. Fatty Arbuckle—who was famously railroaded—never managed it; and Jeffrey Jones probably never will. So The Beaver is a triumph for Mel Gibson. Diving down into the alcoholism and manic depression he has implicated in his appalling behavior in recent years, Gibson has resurfaced with one of his most moving performances. This is all the more remarkable because the film's premise seems so wildly unlikely, if not ludicrous.
Gibson's character is Walter Black, the successful—or once-successful—CEO of a New York toy company. Walter is being crushed to the ground by clinical depression and has just about given up hope. He's tried some desperate therapies—from drum circles to self-flagellation—but now maintains on heavy meds. At work he's a zombie; his staff is demoralized and profits are down. At home he spends most of his time in bed, smothering his pain in sleep. His loyal wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), has stuck by him; but while the youngest of their two sons, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), still loves his dad, the oldest, teenage Porter (the excellent Anton Yelchin), has turned away in contempt.
Rooting around in some castoff junk one day, Walter finds an old hand puppet, a cute, nubbly beaver. When Meredith finally reaches the end of her marital tether and tells him to move out of the house, Walter takes the beaver with him. Checking into a motel, he gets drunk in his room and suddenly hears a voice: "Oi!" The Cockney accent is familiar, and at first we wonder if Walter has suddenly been joined by Michael Caine. But no—it's the beaver. "I'm here to save your goddamned life," says the puppet, no longer quite so cute.
From this point, it takes a special kind of commitment—by both Gibson and Foster, who also directed—to keep the story from lurching into absurdity. (Foster starred with Gibson in the 1994 Maverick, and has remained an unswerving defender through all his years of self-inflicted trauma.) Walter discovers that by speaking through the beaver, he can reconnect with the world. He takes it with him everywhere. And while it's bizarre at first to see Gibson speaking while the puppet moves its mouth (there's no pretense of ventriloquism), we slowly accept it, as do the people in Walter's life.
The script, by TV writer Kyle Killen, is shaped like a classic Hollywood heart-warmer. Empowered by the beaver, Walter sets out to turn his life around, and some viewers are bound to find his journey toward redemption too facile. They also may not entirely buy into the parallel narrative involving Porter and a pretty classmate (Jennifer Lawrence, scoring again), which mirrors Walter's own mental turmoil. But while the story is funny and touching in an unapologetically mainstream way, it also grows unexpectedly dark, and then pitch-black, and you realize the filmmakers have more in mind than formulaic tear-mongering.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Gibson, with his wounded gaze and eloquent variations of posture, bringing such resonance to this character. At one point Walter says, "People seem to love a train wreck, as long as it's not them"—and the real-life overtone is unmistakable. The redemption the movie most strongly suggests is Mel Gibson's own.
Hobo with a Shotgun
Once you've taken in the title—or the two-minute fake trailer to which it was originally attached—you've pretty much gotten the joke that director Jason Eisener has now inflated into Hobo with a Shotgun. It's a good joke, and Eisener works some funny changes on it, but it's not necessarily a gag you want to see elaborated for 86 minutes.
It goes like this. Unnamed vagrant (Rutger Hauer) rides the rails into corrupt town terrorized by raving maniac Drake (Brian Downey) and his depraved family and followers. The hobo sees innocent citizens beaten on the streets, limbs crushed, heads yanked off, and demented bikini girls dancing through showers of blood. There's also a pedophile Santa Claus cruising around with a little girl held captive in his car. Dim of wit though he be, the hobo is appalled. His only dream had been to panhandle enough money to buy a second-hand lawnmower and pursue a late-life career in yard work. But when he comes upon a used shotgun in a pawn shop, he begins to look upon lawn order in a new light.
The movie is a familiar exercise in top-this provocation: a homeless mother firebombed, a passel of school kids roasted alive, a bound man battered by topless sluts with baseball bats. It's all played for laughs, of course, because nearly 50 years after Herschell Gordon Lewis pioneered this sort of thing, who is there left to be shocked by it? Hauer brings iconic heft to the proceedings, if not much else (his hobo is barely a character), and Molly Dunsworth adds dabs of sweet gumption as the gold-hearted hooker with whom he falls in. But as a tribute to the decades of exploitation films that followed in Lewis' wake, Hobo is all too fond: Its vintage low-budget cruddiness grows tiresome, and the one-note fun stretches thin.
Eisener is a promising newcomer, though. His original two-minute Hobo may have won a "grindhouse trailer" competition conducted by exploitation revivalist Robert Rodriguez in 2007, but his next effort, the 16-minute Treevenge—in which ticked-off Christmas trees strike back at their Yuletide tormentors—is a funnier and better-made film than that one or this. Could he become the next Edgar Wright? He's quick and clever, and when he moves up out of the fanboy trash-tribute ghetto, we'll see.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.