(2011) Drama (Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Jeff Corbett, Baylen Thomas, Kelly Coffield Park, Michael Rivera, Kris Arnold, Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, Terry Gross. Directed by Jodie Foster
Depression is one of those insidious things that can trap you in a room and cut off all the exits. For some of us, depression is something we escape through drugs, alcohol or sex. For others, depression is something we learn to live with and accept as being a part of ourselves, often along with the medication we take to deal with it. Then there’s Walter Black.
Walter (Gibson) is the president of a toy manufacturing firm whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. This has led to serious depression on Walter’s part, robbing him of his inertia (as many depression patients do, he sleeps an awful lot) and his ability to communicate with his family. His teenage son Porter (Yelchin), already at odds with his parents as teens will be, finds new reasons to loathe his dad. His wife Meredith (Foster) tries to be supportive but even she has reached her limits. She throws his ass out, sadly, reluctantly but inevitably for the good of her children – there is another son much younger, Henry (Stewart) who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.
Hitting rock bottom, Walter tries to kill himself but his attempts fail miserably. He finds a disreputable-looking beaver puppet and to his surprise finds himself able to speak through the puppet and say the things he’s wanted to say – and more to the point, discovering an avenue to rejoin his life.
It works wonders. Walter is able to reverse the financial decline of his company and reconnect with his family – first with Henry and then with Meredith. Porter still spews venom at his dad and is going through his own turmoil; he writes term papers and speeches for other classmates in their own voice. He’s in the middle of trying to connect with Norah (Lawrence), a cheerleader and class valedictorian who is going through her own life crisis.
But all is not necessarily golden. Walter is becoming consumed with the puppet, to the point that he uses it in his sexual reconciliation with Meredith which is just a little bit more than creepy. One soon has to wonder who’s in charge – Walter or the puppet and if it’s the puppet, where is Walter?
Foster, one of the most gifted actresses and directors of her generation, returns to the director’s chair for the first time in 16 years. She’s a marvelous storyteller – go see Home for the Holidays or Little Man Tate if you don’t believe me – and tends to prefer scripts with unconventional stories to tell, as this one surely is.
As a look at the effect of depression on a family, I’m not sure how to take it. As someone who battles depression himself, I can understand Walter’s behavior to a certain extent, although I kind of wonder what most psychologists would have to say about his self-treatment. I’m not sure talking in a funny cockney voice through a glorified sock puppet is the way to wellness.
Of course, one can’t discuss the film without at least mentioning the elephant in the room. Gibson’s threatening phone calls to his girlfriend became public. There are many who had yet not forgiven him for his anti-Semitic remarks five years earlier as well. His battles with alcohol are public record, and there are those who feel he is a miserable excuse for a human being. Personally, I’m not one of them; I think he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life; there are many people who are close to the man who say he’s neither violent nor racist but their voices tend to be drowned out in all the self-righteousness. I don’t know him personally; he may well think Jews are responsible for all the wars ever started. He may have just said that in a drunken depression. Either way, it’s not germane to the matter at hand.
Say what you like about him as a person, he is a really good actor. He captures the gaze of a man caught in the grip of depression without overdoing it. It’s a hangdog look, the look of a man for whom life has hit the rocks and he expects no better. As Gibson the actor shows the ravages of alcohol on his face, Walter the character shows the ravages of life there. It’s a performance that may on the surface seem over-the-top but when you peel the layers back you realize that you’re watching a man at the top of his craft constructing a gem of a performance.
Yes, there is some heavy handedness here – Walter unable to speak with his own voice and his son writing term papers and speeches in the voices of others but never his own while being terrified that he’s turning into his dad. Yup. And the literal battle for Walter’s soul that ends up….well, I won’t say because that would be telling.
The movie is considered financial flop which can be attributed to the off-beat subject of the film (and Americans are less warm towards off-beat than they are to dramas, which is what Foster attributed the cold reception to) as well as quite frankly a general perception that Gibson is a jerk and his films should be avoided. That’s kind of sad because if you can filter out your feelings about the guy this is a pretty good movie, offbeat as it might be.
WHY RENT THIS: Gibson does a terrific job and has good chemistry with Foster.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit of a mess. Heavy-handed pop psychology.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes and subject matter is pretty much on the adult side dealing with depression; there are a few bad words and some disturbing images, not to mention a teeny bit of sexuality and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foster originally wanted Kristen Stewart for the part of Norah but she was committed to doing Twilight so the then-unknown Lawrence was cast.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a major flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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