There is a compelling sense of desperation in Mel Gibson’s baggy-eyed performance as a mentally ill businessman who finds a second life via a musty puppet beaver in this left of field, and long delayed, Jodie Foster-directed drama that arrives in cinemas burdened by the baggage of Gibson’s chequered reputation.

The life/art parallels between Gibson and his character Walter Black are manifest. Black, who once projected the image of a cocksure all-round success story – smiling wife, chirpy kids, a cosy job, plenty of digits in the bank account, a feet on the desk kinda guy – is now in the middle of a mid-life meltdown.

The opening reel of The Beaver introduces us to this “hopelessly depressed man” — so says the (entirely superfluous) voice-over — who has tried everything to mend himself and failed at every turn. Disheveled and broken-spirited, Black decides to remedy life’s woes by literally sleeping through virtually everything until the moment he awakens and decides that he wants to kill himself.

Black randomly picks up a discarded puppet beaver from a dumpster and, prior to jumping off a hotel balcony, the beaver talks to him. From that point onwards Gibson – who gives a memorable and perfectly pooped performance, as if in every scene he’s just been awoken from an afternoon nap – spends nearly the entire running time with his left hand inside the puppet.

Black speaks to his family and colleagues only through the Beaver and lo and behold, his fortunes change. In think-outside-the-box American Beauty style, in which a mild-mannered character fearlessly changes the manner with which he behaves, the change reaps dividends. Black experiences renewed passion with his wife (Foster), respect from his colleagues and a beaver-related business idea that sells through the roof.

But in this assured, sensitively drawn and bold film impressively written by TV scribe Kyle Killen, her first feature script, things get complicated. The story sets up the Beaver as the character who saves Black and gets his life back on track, so it’s impossible to suggest that what essentially amounts to a demonstrable case of multiple personality disorder is entirely a bad thing. But where does it end? At what point does the Brit-sounding smart alec always-empowered Beaver – loud, charismatic and domineering – become a negative influence? How does Black severe ties with a version of himself?

Foster and Killen refuse to take the easy way out, to pave with a glossy layer of sentiment the path through which their troubled protag must tread. The Beaver makes several inspiring call-to-arms messages – i.e sometimes to inspire change within ourselves we must embrace something radical and be damned those who scoff, judge and stand in our way – but does so through a haze of doubt and perplexity, deliberately avoiding sending messages that life can be improved if one follows X and Y and ticks this box or that.

This is the stomping ground of an American indie – quirky, offbeat, anti-Hollywood and in a storytelling sense impossible, to some extent, to resolve – given marquee status by Gibson and Foster’s involvement. The Beaver is a quietly unsettling inspirational story, with plot points and human interactions that don’t entirely satisfy but are commendably bold and explorative.

See the film and you’ll realise the question “will this revive Mel Gibson’s career?” is both unfair and irrelevant. It was always hard, perhaps impossible, for Gibson to restore box office cred, public stock and colleagues’ respect with a project that accentuates rather than ameliorates his beaten, world-weary, downcast and deprived on and off screen presence. This is closer to Gibson screaming “here I am” then “I’m baa-aack!”

The Beaver is not about finding Gibson critical or popular redemption. It is uninterested in greasing the wheels of a star vehicle. The film ought to be remembered for its intriguing study of mental illness long after the far less stirring question of what the hell happened to Mel has been answered, or forgotten about.

The Beaver’s Australian theatrical release date: August 4, 2011.

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