The Beaver (2011)

Directed by: Jodie Foster Written by: Kyle Killen

The_Beaver_PosterRoger Ebert wasn’t quite impressed with The Beaver writing “”The Beaver” is almost successful, despite the premise of its screenplay.” In response to this comment I cannot help but ask, what premise is Ebert referring to? The Beaver features four main characters: a severely depressed businessman named Walter Black (Mel Gibson), Meredith his wife (Jodie Foster), his son Porter (Aton Yelchin) and Norah, the class valedictorian on whom Porter has a crush (Jennifer Lawrence). The Beaver is thus the tale of two romantic relationships, that are connected due to Porter and Walter appeared being part of a multi-generational chain of fathers raising sons who hate their fathers.

 

While I must admit I am not familiar with the intricacies of Roger Ebert’s tastes, something tells me it is not this premise he is referring to. Rather, it is the film’s more obvious premise: the Australian beaver puppet on Walter Black’s hand.

 

Ebert, it seems, is troubled by a trait that I quite enjoy in film: multi-tonality. He complains that whatever compelling seriousness is in The Beaver is ruined by the absurd premise of an adult man dealing with his depression by expressing himself through a hand puppet. In this respect, I will have to denounce Ebert’s reactionary curmudgeonness. The moments that The Beaver pushes us closest to the ends of our seat are in fact the moments when Walter takes his commitment to the puppet to the next level. Sure, we can accept that the puppet is part of his life, but is he really taking it out at work; is he really talking to it himself; is he seriously using it to have a threesome?

 

There is nonetheless some truth in Ebert’s reaction. The Beaver strikes me as a film that’s not sure if it wants to be indie or not. The film’s plot relies on Walter’s commitment to the beaver, and the other character’s bewilderment and frustration with it. There’s something about the degree of this bewilderment and frustration that undermines the film. It’s almost as if rather than boldly being a work with an unusual take on human psychology, The Beaver simply puts that psychology forward for the sake of it being taken apart and pulled back towards normalcy.

 

This problem is most apparent when one considers that The Beaver implies that Porter is at risk of following in Walter’s footsteps. While Porter has his share of self-destructive behaviors his storyline feels less inspired than Walter’s. In one scene, for example, he makes an inappropriate comment to a character about suicide. If Porter were written a little differently this could have been a defining moment for him: his problem could be that he is empathetic but is pathologically bad at expressing his empathy. His problem could also be that he has no filter. Neither of these approaches are used, however. Instead, Porter is simply a relatively ordinary, angsty-teen protagonist whose blatant expression of his feelings is used when the plot needs advancing.

 

So perhaps Ebert was right: The Beaver is almost successful. It makes a traditionally tough-guy actor vulnerable through his unique relationship with his puppet. Unfortunately, this is the extent of the film’s imaginative quality and this excellent premise is not played out to its full potential.

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Mother! (2017)

Written and directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Mother!2017There are indie films that challenge you to take pleasure in raw sound effects, awkward human interactions and mundanely beautiful settings. There are big budget action films replete with explosions and chaos. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an overwhelming blend of both. The film has earned praise and scorn alike, yet if viewed in a vacuum one can appreciate it as a work that unites audiences: its subtlety and melodrama are so smoothly connected that viewers who come to see one level of intensity can leave having appreciated another.

 

Mother! admittedly did not win me over right away. The film makes use of handheld cameras, and “Mother” (Jennifer Lawrence)’s constant walks up spiral staircases can be dizzying. The initial appearance of Mother’s husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem) is also off-putting. The character seems under-acted: he is calm compared to the regularly anxious Mother, and normal compared to the quirky houseguests they soon come to deal with. Him does not come across as a mild-mannered person, but as someone out-of-step with the realism of the piece: like a rookie-actor reading lines. Bardem, of course, is no rookie. Without giving away too much, it should be said that his disconcerting performance is in fact praiseworthy, for his character indeed has a different relationship to realism than that of his fellow characters.

 

The indie-realist side of Mother! is essential to its disjointed, narrative structure. The film is slow to develop a clear plot trajectory. I ts story develops as, slowly at first, various strangers show up and decide to reside at Mother and Him’s house. The first guest (Ed Harris) is a somewhat peculiar, dying man. He is later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s eccentricness is far more obnoxious and threatening than Harris’. Were the film to end after the seemingly final confrontation between Mother, Him and this couple, it would be a passable, stand alone work. Pfeiffer is a compelling antagonist, and her lack-of-boundaries in contrast to Mother’s decency foreshadows the drama that follows.

 

It is after Pfeiffer’s departure, however, that the film becomes truly compelling. Mother!’s story proceeds to explore issues from celebrity, to artistry, to late capitalism and borders, becoming more and more disturbing as it proceeds. While it is certainly not pleasant to watch, the film’s strength is that it never reaches a point where it runs out of ideas: there is always a new twist, always a new tragedy. Kristen Wiig, for example, is introduced as a striking recurring character as the film nears its conclusion, illustrating the film’s tireless plotline.

 

Mother!’s grandiosity has led some critics to write it off as pretentious and self-centred, with some claiming that it is Aronofsky’s arrogant attempt to portray the challenge of a writer (Bardem) working with his muse (Lawrence). This critique misses the obvious fact, that Mother! is, for the most part, Mother’s story, not Him’s. While Bardem’s character ultimately has power over Lawrence’s, it is of a god-like nature: he exists on a different level, and his morality operates on a different time scale. Him’s divine status is what shapes Bardem’s portrayal of him as a distant figure: sure he is powerful, but his power is precisely what means the story is not his, but that of his wife.

 

Mother! is an imaginative work, but is effective because it appeals to audiences on a baser level. I left the cinema mouth agape: how did it have the audacity to go in that direction, I asked myself? If gore and handheld cameras do not put you off, worry not about the pretentiousness and give Mother! a try.