Mel Gibson as ‘The Beaver’ — a chance to re-engineer his life?


As depressed toy manufacturer Walter Black, Mel Gibson speaks through a puppet, The Beaver.

(October 10, 2011) –We’ve just finished Mental Illness Awareness Week and “The Beaver” comes out on DVD today.

Almost everyone loves to hate Gibson now. Most people love to hate this movie, too — not that most people have a clue what’s happening. On the surface, Walter Black, a suicidally depressed toy manufacturer who’s also failing in family relations, finds a better self as he speaks through a beaver hand puppet … then discovers that it’s really not possible to live as someone else.

Gibson’s character suffers from nothing more than “male menopause” and “can’t play comedy” as the role requires, one prominent reviewer sniffs. A psychoanalyst describes Gibson’s character as using the psychoanalytic tool of “splitting” to cure his depression — separating the functional and dysfunctional parts of himself until he’s ready, near the end of the film, to begin the process of re-integration.

I’ve got a somewhat different take, and I’ve got to believe that Gibson’s long-time buddy Jodie Foster — who saw the script and knew she had to direct Gibson in this role — saw the story similarly.

I see Gibson playing a piece of his own bipolar, alcohol-abusing life in this film … and ultimately making the decision that’s so difficult for people with bipolar disorder to choose. His character only knows how to live in desperate, alcohol-supported depressions or creative, successful, life-of-the-party manias (represented by The Beaver). Eventually, he makes a very painful decision to let go of The Beaver in favor of a more balanced and ultimately less destructive way of life.

It’s not for nothing that Gibson’s character is married to a woman who designs roller coasters.

Here’s why I think the other reviewers are wrong. (SPOILER ALERT) If all this was about was “splitting,” then The Beaver wouldn’t have had a death grip on Walter Black. The two wouldn’t have ended up in mortal combat. The Beaver behaved the way we’ve seen mental illnesses behave during their most dangerous phases: as if the illness was attempting to protect its own life and identity by whatever means possible. Those are the times when illnesses try to convince patients that they don’t need medications; they’ll always be sick; they might as well give in and (stay in bed for days … jump off the 12-story hotel balcony … run naked through the department store … shoot the guy in the blue shirt at the gas station). (END SPOILER)

Jodie Foster gave Mel Gibson the chance to spend a couple years  in a sort of “living” therapy — a chance to sort of “reverse-Stansislavski” his life. The more he performed his own emotions and experience, the more you might hope he could get a clue about good choices for his real life.

Of course, it’s not entirely clear he’s there. He’s got the Jewish community up in arms about his desire to produce (and possibly star in) an action movie about Judah Maccabee, the hero whose actions are among the basis for the December celebration of Hanukkah. And the upset is pretty predictable, given his past anti-Semitic remarks. Public apologies would be a good start at a good choice.

The Beaver poses the very difficult question: Are you willing to give up the tiny (nasty, ill) thing that you are so sure (when it’s in control) is the most real and true part of you in order to take your entire world off the roller coaster?

What do you think?


About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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