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Talk To the Hand Puppet

by John Rodat on June 15, 2011

The Beaver
Directed by Jodie Foster

There’s a symbolically overt scene in The Beaver in which teenage Porter Black (Anton Yelchin) plasters over the dozens of Post-It Notes on his wall with a portable graffiti mural painted by his girlfriend, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence):

The Post-It Notes itemize all the ways Porter resembles his despised, mentally ill father, Walter (Mel Gibson). Norah’s mural was an act of catharsis inspired by Porter, who encouraged her to face, accept and express a personal tragedy she had struggled to suppress. By blotting out his list of perceived failings with her creative work—and being inspired in turn—Porter makes clear visually that our sadnesses and shame are deeply linked to our most authentic and, perhaps, best selves.

This troubling knot of identity is very much at the heart of The Beaver; but while the movie has some admirably nuanced depictions of that tangle, in its drive toward a happy ending, ultimately, it cops out.

Walter Black is a clinically depressed chief executive at a toy company, which he inherited from his father, a suicide. After years of worsening mental health, which is destroying both the company and the solidity of his marriage to Meredith (Jodie Foster), Walter is, himself, suicidal. Self-help books, talk therapy and medication have failed him. At the end of his rope (well, the end of his necktie, anyway), drunken Walter botches both a hanging and a self-defenestration, while wearing a beaver hand puppet. (Just go with it.) But upon waking, weak-willed Walter discovers that the Beaver has everything he lacks. All of Walter’s strength, agency and joie de vivre have been outsourced, so to speak, into the puppet (voiced by Gibson in a more than credible cockney).

The Beaver announces that he has come to save Walter; and he does exactly that. By expressing himself through the puppet, Walter turns the company around, rescues his marriage, and reconnects with his youngest son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). Porter is harder to reach, so terrified is he of his resemblance to his father.

And here’s where the movie goes off the rails, for me. The central theme of the movie seems to be that happiness is a thing that cannot be wheedled out of reality by obedience; you cannot placate fate with self-abnegation. Pretending to be happy is not happiness. Hence, Norah cannot be truly happy denying her sadness; she can be happy only after expressing it in her art. We must express our true selves, even if it violates convention or civic codes. OK.

Yet, Walter’s suicidal depression is overcome the instant he begins speaking through the puppet, allowing him to regain material and domestic success of which dreams (or movies, anyway) are made. And yet, he’s driven to extreme action to separate himself from that therapeutic artifice—largely by the shamed disapproval of his wife and eldest child.

The argument could be made, I suppose, that the puppet is a dodge, a device to shield Walter from his faults and therefore a distancing mechanism from his true self. But how is Norah’s art—or any art—substantially different? Let’s say, for example, there’s a famous and respected movie star who proves in his private life to be a bullying, misogynistic anti-Semite but is, in his “comeback” film, still capable of a really quite impressive, entertaining and emotionally complex turn as a delusional and conflicted man who can find his best self only in role play.

After all, some of us are just assholes.

Are you really gonna take the Beaver from that guy?