In ‘The Beaver,’ Gibson thrives as a troubled man

A Mel Gibson movie opening on Friday the 13th - if you're into omens (where are we on the Mayan calendar?), this can't be good.

Certainly "The Beaver" is grappling with a box-office curse - the taint of rant-prone Mel, making his first movie appearance since pleading no contest to charges that he abused his girlfriend.

There was never much hope that "The Beaver" was going to make "Lethal Weapon" dollars. The script sat unproduced in Hollywood for years, reputed to be well-written but too weird for general audiences

On top of that you have Gibson in a role that calls attention to his drinking, depression and domestic problems - he plays Walter Black, an unbalanced man exiled from his own home.

There are no doubt legions of folks who've sworn off Gibson for good. But it must be said that if you're going ahead and make "The Beaver," and you need an actor to go convincingly off the deep end, you could do worse than Mel Gibson. But you might not do better.

Director Jodie Foster kicks off "Beaver" with a disturbing prologue of an unhinged and exiled Walter checking into a hotel, drunk, enraged, lost, finally trying to hang himself from the shower rod. My feeling watching Gibson stagger through these scenes - this is something he's done before.

There are riveting moments here of Walter/Gibson looking into his own warped and weathered face, as if staring at the half of himself that cannot control his dark impulses.

Gibson also has enough versatility to change gears when "The Beaver" introduces its title conceit. Walter survives by walling off his tormented self, and starts to engage the world through a sock puppet, a beaver, on the end of his arm.

This self-therapy actually works, and he gingerly re-enters the orbit of the family that cast him out. Gibson isn't alone here, it needs to be said. This is an ensemble piece, and exceptionally well cast. Oscar-winner Foster directs herself as Gibson's wife. Anton Yelchin is an estranged, angry son, and Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence is Yelchin's love interest.

The most important axis develops between father and son. The boy hates Walter, fears he may inherit his illness and warily charts their similarities (but misses the most obvious, woven into the cleverly layered script).

The cast, against all odds, manages to put over the sock-puppet conceit. We start to believe in the family, and even in Walter's fragile reclamation. That includes his professional life as a nationally known toy maker - the means by which Walter's puppeteering and mental illness become a national media phenomenon. (Jon Stewart and Terry Gross make funny cameos).

Here, reality/notoriety actually help "The Beaver." Three or four months ago, the idea of a troubled man taking his mental illness on some sort of media tour would have seemed unthinkable. But that was before Charlie Sheen.

It's this angle that probably drew Foster to the script. She's complained of the way celebrity robs people of humanity, either as spectator or as spectacle.

And there is no doubt symbolic purpose to the way Walter uses his imagination to deal with his problem, a sly reflection of the way Gibson's persona, his craft and the art converge in "The Beaver."

The Beaver

Directed by Jodie Foster. With John Bernhardt, Mel Gibson, Kris Arnold, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Paul Hodge, Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Ang, Cherry Jones, Jodie Foster. Distributed by Summit Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hours, 31 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality and language including a drug reference).