05/06/2011 12:54 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2011

The Dark World of Depression: 'The Beaver' (Movie Review)

Is there a different sort of "depression," a deeper form, which does not respond to psychiatry's remedies? Is this what ails Walter Black (pun intended?) (Mel Gibson) as he becomes progressively disabled, failing in his role as the son who inherited the mantle of the family (toy) business, and as a husband and father? We see his medicine shelf loaded with pill bottles that have provided no relief. We see him banging on a drum engaged in some off-beat therapy that's not taught in psychiatric programs I know. We learn he has stopped seeing his psychiatrist as there was nothing to be gained. It is not looking good for Walter, nor his good wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster, who also directs the film) and their two boys. That black monster, despair, has gripped Walter's soul and is pulling it ever downward to hell on earth, where suicide seems his only exit.

The older son, 17 years old, named Porter (pun intended?) (Anton Yelchin), appears to be carrying forth the same demon on to his generation. Walter and Porter's blackness is all the darker as it is contrasted by Meredith, loyal and dedicated to serving them, and the angelic younger son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). How much can a saintly wife bear? How resilient can a young child be to the wrenching pain around him? What are the furies father and son conceal and what fuels them on their self-destructive paths until all they can see is hopeless in its cast?

Yet the pain does not stop there. To echo the Black family's journey into angst, Porter's love interest, Norah (Jennifer Lawrence, having wowed us in "Winter's Bone," also lives a life of agony, though she is still able to keep her trauma and its consequences secret from those in school, where she is a cheerleader and scholastic success -- except for Porter who can spot a fellow traveler.

Enter the Beaver, the movie's namesake: first, the furry puppet is a "miracle," a "prescription puppet" more powerful than a serotonin uptake inhibitor. Unconventional treatment for sure, but not after drum beating and Prozac have failed to cure; mind you, we have a toymaker to spawn the idea. The Beaver takes Walter, literally by the hand, from the abyss and leads him onto the tough road of recovery. The Beaver is Walter's alter -- the person he needs to be but cannot mobilize -- the force that will restore his sanity, his family and his business. But then, in keeping with any deal with the devil, the Beaver becomes a monster who shall not be denied. The Beaver turns out not to be medicinal; he is a deadly force himself. He becomes inseparable and demands unbridled love and commitment. The Beaver becomes a habit that in time will take far more than it gives. Where was the package insert that warned of its risks?

"The Beaver" is a film that does not approach depression or recovery in the ways that American psychiatry denotes. Walter appears to suffer, as does Porter and Norah, from a condition more complex, beyond standard textbook diagnostic criteria and treatment guidelines. Is it bred by trauma -- the trauma of loss, violence, abuse, even cold indifference? What is the intergenerational fate its victims carry? How does the monster of despair, whatever its genesis, fiercely grip our soul and refuse to let go?

The film was directed by Ms. Foster and these are some of the questions she has engaged. I can't see how anyone has thought of this film as comedy, though there are funny moments and some light music. It is hard not to think of Mr. Gibson as portraying on-screen his off-screen troubles that have made recent and sensational headlines. And hard not to think of Ms. Lawrence continuing her true grit portrayal of an Ozark mountain teenager left to save her family from losing the meager life they have.

The film gets very dark before the light returns. Brace yourself. But that is no different from the course of so much of what we know of as despair, individual and often societal. Walter's separation from the Beaver is brutal but necessary to permit (an also painful) passage to recovery -- for Walter, Porter, Norah and even for Meredith, as she gets her family back but in ways that bear little resemblance to the memories that once were her source of hope.

Beavers build but they also dam (pun intended); they bring down mighty trees to serve themselves; from teeth to tail they are equipped to be weapons. The Beaver is no cute pet, and this one probably deserves burial in Stephen King's Pet Sematary. The moral is clear: Better to let the demons out than to create and live by another. Better to seek the company of family and friends, as human and faulty as they surely are. Better to not give up on the human spirit for while it may be hiding out of sight it is not gone.


The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.

Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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