In The Beaver, Mel Gibson is Walter Black, a near-catatonically depressed business owner who finds a beaver puppet in a garbage can and begins to talk through it using a blunt cockney accent. Although Walter plainly manipulates the puppet and makes no ventriloquist-like attempt to conceal the movement of his lips, the Beaver (who introduces himself as “the Beaver”) claims to be alive and speaking on Walter’s behalf. To engage Walter, you must literally talk to the hand.
Despite its bizarro-world trappings, Kyle Killen’s script is a tidy problem drama exploring the nature of psychological defense mechanisms. Walter, through the Beaver, explains that instead of living in misery, he has wiped the slate clean and become someone/something else. In contrast, his teenage son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), struggles to remake his own identity in a manner more conventionally psychotherapeutic. He’s stuck Post-its to his wall denoting each of his father’s mannerisms and attitudes, and sets out to purge himself of all of them. He has also made it his mission to force a classmate, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), on whom he has an intense crush, to confront the death by overdose of her older brother, thereby liberating her from the deforming effects of repression. This turns out not to be the fastest way to a young girl’s heart—but neither, at the other extreme, is planting a kiss on your spouse’s lips with a puppet. Perhaps it’s for the best that we’re spared the existential dislocation of watching the Beaver venture beneath the sheets …
Jodie Foster both directed the film and plays Meredith, Walter’s stricken wife, and she has muddled her two roles: The Beaver is so heavy-spirited it could easily be “a Meredith Black film.” She never lets you see how Walter could, in the short term, be liberated by pretending to be the Beaver, a rude, extroverted creature out for a good time. She’s so afraid of trivializing his suicidal feelings that she forgets she’s an artist and not a social worker. The movie’s glumness is in synch with Foster’s performances over the last decade: It’s as if she’s decided that acting is something you mature beyond. Which I suspect had a dampening effect on Gibson’s performance.
I couldn’t wait to see Mel play a tortured soul in The Beaver—I was ready to forgive him everything. (Okay, almost everything.) His most inspired performance was as a semi-delusional paranoiac in Conspiracy Theory, the movie a marvelous change from the usual Make Mel Mad template in which the death or injury of a lover/wife/child/dog drives his characters to murderous vengeance, his anger all mixed up with his antic temperament and self-loathing. In Conspiracy Theory, he managed to be both zany and poignant. But his Walter never mushrooms into a larger-than-life loon. Because the puppet is doing the talking, Gibson bites his lips and turns his face into a blank—you register only the wounded baby blues, the sagging features, the stupor. It’s a depressed performance, abstract and unsatisfying. And the Beaver isn’t much to look at, either, being rather ordinary, with disappointing anatomically correct small eyes. Killen hasn’t used the Beaver to illuminate Walter’s inner world, so the puppet ends up a mere thug: It’s not much of a surprise when he makes like the dummy in Magic. Gibson is better in the later scenes, when Walter tries to escape the Beaver’s nefarious influence. And Gibson’s never bad. It’s just that we know how much is missing. As a raging nutcase, he’s capable of so much more.
In his seventies-style gutbucket vigilante picture Hobo With a Shotgun, director Jason Eisener aims low and splatters his target all over the screen. Really, it’s hard to see why the NRA is so insistent that the Second Amendment apply to automatic weapons when you can blow people’s intestines out with a simple pump shotgun. Rutger Hauer plays the bum who jumps off a freight train and shuffles with his shopping cart into a dystopian village ruled by a showbizzy crime boss (Brian Downey) who calls himself “the Drake” and his two sadistic-idiot sons. They like to kill people by fixing manhole covers around their victims’ heads and … I’ll spare you. The camera rests on Hauer’s sickened, battered face as people are tortured, and we wait for him to get the eponymous weapon and do the righteous thing.
There’s something appealing about the movie’s unpretentious carnival of carnage, although I could have done without the flamethrower assault on a school bus to raise the stakes. The most novel element is a filmmaker (Pasha Ebrahimi), who hires bums to fight for the camera, gushing over his subjects like a Hollywood agent while they pummel one another. It’s a nice touch that Hauer earns the money for his shotgun by eating glass for this director. After he rushes a wounded hooker to the hospital, he lingers by the maternity ward and addresses the newborns, lamenting the day they’ll be crushed by this vile culture, victimize others, and sell their bodies on the streets. It’s an open question whether keeping them away from movies like Hobo would help in that noble goal.
Two new Asian action pictures demonstrate that art and gore are not mutually exclusive. Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen features Donnie Yen as the mythical hero, played in the past by both Bruce Lee and Jet Li. Here, Chen Zhen stands up for his Chinese countrymen, first when they’re used as cannon fodder by British and American troops in World War I, then when they’re terrorized by the Imperial Japanese Empire in Shanghai. The prologue is stupendous, with Yen zigzagging and scampering around battlefield debris to take out a nest of German snipers: Take that, Quentin Tarantino! But when the film shifts to Shanghai and the club Casablanca, there’s too much lustrous-hued loitering and too few martial-arts set pieces. This isn’t another disposable B movie, though. Lau made Infernal Affairs,Superior in every way to its Americanization, The Departed, as well as sequels that deepened that picture’s scope, and the melodrama in Fist is grounded in national traumas—muddled loyalties and a legacy of oppression—that play out in various forms to this day. Much more consistent is 13 Assassins, a surprisingly classical epic in the Seven Samurai mode by Japanese bad boy Takashi Miike. The solemn first half centers on the assembly of a team to kill the shogun’s psychotically cruel half-brother—not an easy decision in a culture with no tradition of vigilantism. But these are the kind of men who live to die well: “He who values his life dies a dog’s death.” The second half of the film, in which our band of thirteen traps the half-brother’s army in an evacuated village they proceed to demolish, has a mixture of bloodletting and exultation that would make Sam Peckinpah sit up in his grave and howl with pleasure.