The James Clayton Column: Mel Gibson’s The Beaver, drowning beneath the movie mainstream

In this week’s column, James explores the myth of Mel Gibson, and explains why you should see his latest movie, The Beaver…

Imagine for a moment that you’re a veteran Australian action movie star with a gravelly voice, a girl’s name and a lengthy filmography of box office hits. In an ideal world you’d be held in high esteem for your excellent performances as wronged men desperately seeking revenge. You’d be admired for the unconventional, uncompromisingly savage epics you’ve directed and your dedication to filming in obscure, ancient tongues.

The world bows down, kisses your confident bare butt cheeks and proclaims you’re a genius warrior hero in this idyllic vision. Except, you’re not a movie messiah. In fact, you’re a very naughty boy.

In reality, the world is shaking its collective head and deriding you as a crazed and aggressive alcohol-addled bigot. Your bad behaviour, violence and barmy remarks of a sexist/racist/homophobic colour have turned you into a tabloid fodder.

The world is alienated, Mad Max looks level-headed in comparison and you still have a girl’s name. This is ‘Melcalpypto’, which in the Yucatec dialect means ‘the undoing and great shaming of warrior who was once Braveheart.’

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Mel Gibson needs to get revenge on the cruel fates that have brought him ignominious misfortune. Surely someone or something is eager and able to lend the Lethal Weapon star a hand and help him achieve some form of salvation. Well, don’t worry, Sugartits! Things will be just swell again! Leave it to Beaver!

I hoped that Jodie Foster’s latest directorial effort would raise Gibson’s standing a bit. It’s not pleasant when off-screen ugliness ends up tainting everything a movie personality does. I don’t like über-conservative bigots, but I do believe that art should be judged on its own merits. I like Apocalypto and I loathe Braveheart, and Mel Gibson’s personal views and antics have got nothing to do with my opinion of either.

Since I first heard about the film’s intriguing premise (depressed man adopts an alternate puppet personality in a therapeutic transference exercise to get over mental illness), I was eager to see it. Yes, I was an eager beaver for The Beaver, but I, and the rest of the world, were kept waiting.

The wait went on as the flick languished in the vaults, constantly held back because there never seemed to be an ideal release date. It was partly due to the film’s nature, but mostly because it was fronted by Gibson, whose off-screen controversies continued without redemption or public image revolution.

I admired Jodie Foster already. She makes the other actors in Bugsy Malone look like school children. Observing her acceptance of the way things are, I’m even more impressed and feel compelled to praise her as an exemplary beacon of Zen calm amidst the showbiz scene’s  blood and thunder. She clearly has the patience of a saint and, as such, is the perfect director for a troubled actor to work with as their personal problems persist off set.

St Jodie helped save the soul of Travis Bickle and calmly confronted Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalistic ferocity but, sadly, has had no luck with Mel and her own very worthy movie about mental illness. Actually, labelling The Beaver as a ‘mental illness’ movie isn’t fair either and does Foster, Gibson and everyone else involved in the project a disservice.

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What they’ve all delivered is an affecting motion picture that tells a compelling story of the human condition without compromise. It’s a film that deserves to be seen, not just because of the themes, issues and truths it portrays, but how it portrays them with sincerity and solid screenwriting, direction and performances.

No one saw The Beaver, though, because the movie only received a very limited release. Good reviews mean little against box office takings, and lack of screenings and popular preference for high concept blockbusters over sobering ‘dramedy’ flicks has meant the film’s been damned as an epic flop.

Meanwhile, other movies have been making fortunes and finding audiences, even when critics savage some of them with the most vicious reviews imaginable. There’s no justice in the movie mainstream and with juggernaut pirate franchises and rudely boisterous Bangkok-bound bachelor parties making waves, the sad, soggy rodent was always doomed to drown.

I’m comparing incomparables here, of course. Scrutinising the industry like this only leads you to despair, howling with apocalyptic ire like some Charlton Heston character before you cry, “Oh, God damn you all to Hell!” and completely give up on the human race. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering The Beaver alongside a few recent blockbuster hits when, if you squint carefully, you catch glimpses of similar themes hidden between the frames.

Lead characters in films like Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern grapple with essential issues of identity, new personas, social responsibility and life purpose. In a different picture (probably not a Marvel or DC Comics adaptation), the heroes would be dealing with the conundrums in a different manner, perhaps even going through a course of therapy.

The superhero genre is all about psychology and psychoanalysis, but the big questions often get buried beneath the blockbuster bluster and wish to be family-friendly and appeal to wide audiences. It’s assumed that consumers don’t want to spend too long contemplating superhero ego issues and personality crises, so those concerns are always cast as secondary elements behind the special effects action, thick with iconic costumed characters.

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That might explain some of the antipathy to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation. It also explains why mental illness-themed sci-fi flick, Franklyn, was erroneously advertised as a vigilante movie in the vein of V For Vendetta. Franklyn is an intense picture about trauma, crises of faith and significant psychological disturbance that makes The Dark Knight look as light and chirpy as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

It’s probably a good thing, then, that The Beaver wasn’t heavily promoted as some kind of hilarious puppet critter comedy. I imagine it could have been pitched as ‘Something’s Gotta Give with Mel Gibson and a Muppet with Michael Caine’s voice’. The fact that the title suggests either a cutesy animated flick or a bestial porn production doesn’t do Jodie Foster’s film any favours either.

It’s a huge shame to think that, at a different time, with a different outfit, an excellent film would have got fairer treatment. It’s a hard world out there, and I don’t know how Gibson, Foster and everyone behind The Beaver could have guaranteed they got a shot at sharing their valuable work with audiences. Despairing and at a loss, I think I need help from a hand puppet shrink.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.