I’d heard so much negative buzz about The Beaver (starring Mel Gibson and directed by Jodie Foster) that I stayed away from my local movie theater despite the film’s interesting psychological subject matter. This past week, I finally saw it on DVD and was surprised to find myself appreciating it much more than I’d expected.
While there’s some truth to the criticism I’ve heard, The Beaver tackles a difficult subject — suicidal depression — with psychological insight and emotional honesty. It scorns the simplistic answers offered by pop psychology and rejects the widely propagated medical lie that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. The film doesn’t really try to explain depression (although it offers some interesting hints as to its origins), or offer a solution that leads to the happy ending. Instead, it explores a peculiar form of splitting, a desperate attempt to “cure” depression when all else fails.
Walter Black (Gibson) displays many typical symptoms of depression in men: he shows virtually no interest in his life or feeling for his wife Meredith (Foster) and children (the excellent Anton Yelchin and Riley Thomas Stewart). He sleeps too much, drinks too much, he can’t think or concentrate at work and seems beset by feelings of worthlessness. When wife Meredith has finally had enough and tells Walter to move out, he buys a box full of booze at a liquor store and rescues a beaver hand-puppet from a parking lot dumpster. In his motel room, he makes a clumsy attempt at suicide and ends up passed out on the floor, pinned beneath a TV set.
When Walter awakes in the morning, the Beaver begins to speak to him in a cockney accent. It’s Walter himself who is speaking, of course, but he apparently feels and behaves as if the Beaver is a live being who can actually talk. The Beaver ridicules all the self-help books Walter has read and pills he has taken (“cotton candy”); he mocks Walter for believing he can just “splash up some paint and re-arrange the furniture and everything will be all right,” just like in one of those home improvement shows he watches.
“You want things to change,” the Beaver explains, “I mean really change, you’ve got to forget about home improvement, Walter. You’ve got to blow up the whole bloody building.” As the film progresses, the Beaver’s meaning becomes clear: you have to jettison your damaged, depressed self and start over from scratch, as if you were a completely new and different person.
This is exactly what Walter appears to do. Suddenly, he is full of energy, interested in his wife and children, and newly inspired at the foundering toy company he inherited from his father. In one sense, you can view it as a kind of manic flight from depression that characterizes bipolar disorder (I’ve discussed this in detail in my YouTube video about psychotherapy issues in manic-depressive illness). It also reflects a kind of splitting, where the “bad” depressed parts of the personality are sequestered in defective “Walter” and the “good” (functional) parts are separated out and personified in the Beaver, who then takes control of Walter’s life. From that point on, Walter almost never speaks for himself; the cockney Beaver does all the talking. On their anniversary, when Meredith insists that Walter use his own voice and talk to her as himself, the results are disastrous.
Before the Beaver appeared, Walter was drowning in despair, feeling hopeless; he’d lost sight of any of his good qualities, and as a result, he felt worthless. The psychological creation of the Beaver as his alter ego reflects Walter’s attempt to rescue his strengths from this all-consuming depression, to separate out those good qualities in order to make use of them. While we usually think of projection as ridding ourselves of the bad, it more rarely involves an attempt to preserve goodness by putting it outside, away from the badness within. This is exactly what Walter attempts to do with the Beaver.
Such splitting always breaks down eventually, however; toward the end of the movie, Walter’s depression re-emerges. He has begun to feel that disowning his mental illness (“blowing up the whole bloody building”) involved sacrificing too many other parts of himself that he needs to address. In dramatic fashion, he frees himself from the Beaver’s increasingly harsh domination; at the film’s end, we have the sense that Walter has begun to address the underlying depression in a more constructive way.
One of the film’s themes concerns the past, your personal past, and the extent to which you can free your present life from its influence. The Beaver suggests that the only effective path into a more mentally healthy future is through your past. As a psychoanalyst, I would have to agree.