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A depressed man uses a puppet (found in the garbage) as a way to deal with the “negative aspects” of his personality.  As a way to deal with the fact that he tried to commit suicide.  As a way to deal with his failed suicide attempts, failed marriage, failed business, failed fatherhood.

I’m all for alternative forms of therapy; I think Americans, in general, are way too over-medicated.  Got an ill, here’s a pill.  A pill for every  ill.  So I guess it’s refreshing to see someone talking about other therapies besides chemical ones.

The Beaver puppet is startling at first;  Mr. Black’s family is taken aback, understandably.  As is the audience.  It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable.  And just when you think you’re getting used to it, the film dives into some even weirder shit.  This movie gets really really weird.

Just like most psychiatric drugs, there are side effects to using the puppet.  The Beaver becomes a crutch;  Mr. Black becomes dependent on it. He can’t talk with out it;  hell, he can’t even have sex without the Beaver  (plushophilia, anyone??).  Mr. Black seems to be on the right track:  gets his business going again, gets his wife and one kid back.  But he’s dependent on that puppet, just as he would be on a prescribed drug.  The puppet is a symbol of modern drug therapy:  once you get on it, you can’t get off.  Eventually this happens to Mr. Black:  he can’t take the puppet off.

Several things caught my attention in this film.  First, the family’s reaction to his therapy:  skepticism at first, acceptance, then total rejection.  Work colleagues were different:  they saw the puppet as an eccentricity, until it became too horrific, and they then rejected Mr. Black altogether (how many times have we seen this in the media?).  The public loved him and his puppet until they found out just how really crazy and mental he was.  Again, sound familiar?

Mr. Black’s oldest son rejects him completely, sick or no, until the very end of the film.  Interesting that the son, too, shows signs of depression and keeps post-it notes all over his room with traits he sees in his father that he wants to avoid.  We’ve all done this, right?  But the question remains:  how will the son avoid the same pitfalls as the father?  We know that depression and other mental illnesses are genetic; we can see this in the film, but the mom (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem quite aware of that.  She gets angry at the son for sleeping all day.  This is very familiar to me:  as a person who suffers emotionally, I’ve often felt the anger of a parent directed at me simply because I was sick.  No other reason necessary.

What is this film trying to say about depression and mental illness and our treatment of it?  The film culminates in a scene set in an institution, father and son hugging, finding common ground at last.  Is this the message?  That we can only find solutions in institutions?  That we must be taken out of society and locked up?  That no other therapies will work?

I think if the puppet is metaphor for chemical treatment of depression, then it works.  Chemicals are destructive to our minds and bodies, our relationships with others.  This still doesn’t answer the question of why he ends up in an institution, or where he goes from there.  Which leaves me wondering:  where does the field of psychiatry go from here, once we realize drugs are not the only answer?

 

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