Providence and The Beaver

Watching a man struggle with clinical depression makes a powerful psychological story rarely seen on stage or screen. In The Beaver, Walter Black, president of the JerryCo toy company founded by his deceased father, suffers from a form of severe depression known as Anhedonia, characterized by the inability to experience pleasure or to desire to engage in pleasurable activities. In the film, Walter fights not only clinical psychological depression but also profound spiritual depression

In her commentary on the film, director Jodie Foster notes her film’s second story: “Walter is going through a spiritual crisis.”  As theologian Michael Horton has observed, there “is a tendency in our age to press a false choice between physical diagnoses and spiritual ones…We cannot untangle the threads of physical and spiritual depression or pain. Both are equally real, and they feed each other.”[i] While attention is focused on the psychological story, the film employs symbols and biblical allusions to dramatize the subterranean spiritual story. Walter has not only inherited JerryCo (and its associations the biblical walled city of Jericho), but also a mental illness from his father who committed suicide when Walter was seven years of age, waiting for his father to help him build a wooden Cub Scout racing car.

The Black family – a father, a mother, and two sons – could be seen as a contemporary version of television’s pioneer family, the Cleavers, with the youngest son, nicknamed “The Beaver.” But the Black family is the dark side of the Cleaver family. Knowing how the illness affected his family growing up, Walter wants to shelter his own family from the effects of his hereditary illness. Walter, fearing the pollution of his family, withdraws psychologically from his family. He believes disengagement will break the family curse, while in actuality his withdrawal is a primary symptom of his severe depression. Walter‘s fear that his own suicide would strengthen the familial curse leads him to ironically deepen the effects of the illness on his family. The less Walter engages with his family to spare them, the more he pollutes them, and the more he is driven toward suicide.

While Walter’s  drama is told through psychological motivations, his spiritual story is told through an array of symbols and allusions.

Water (sounds like “Walter”), both fresh and polluted, live-affirming and death-causing, is an important symbol in Walter’s spiritual journey. In fact Walter is first seen floating on water, neither alive nor dead. His father’s death has already fouled Walter’s spiritual life. His father’s suicide and the fear of his own have fouled his home.  Likewise, when the citizens of the biblical town of Jericho came to the prophet Elisha for help in cleaning their cursed city’s perennial spring ‘Ain es-Sultan which wouldn’t allow the trees to bear fruit, the citizens were reminded that a curse would fall on anyone who tried to remove the pollution – he would lose his first born son. (Joshua 6:26) To cleanse the Jericho River and end the curse, the prophet offered a strange cure:  Bring him a bowl and salt. Elisha then put the salt in the bowl and threw both into the Jericho River. The river miraculously was cured through these unorthodox means. (2 Kings 2: 18-22) Similarly, Walter will hope to restore his life through unorthodox means – a hand puppet. Perhaps the beaver puppet will break the curse on the JerryCo family as the prophet’s bowl of salt freed the city of Jericho.

But for now the curse is having its way. Normal cures have failed. Walter has tried prescription drugs and therapy without much success, and sleeps for hours at a time, day and night. Meanwhile, his family is falling apart around him. His wife, Meredith struggles to be both father and mother to her sons. Seeing his destructive influence – Henry is disappearing and Porter is obsessed with becoming his father’s opposite – Meredith finally throws Walter out of their house.

At school, 17-year-old Porter operates a lucrative business selling “ghosted” homework to his classmates. He has no voice of his own because he fears it will sound like his hated father. The youngest son, Henry is also becoming a ghost. He’s now so insignificant that his classmates throw him in a dumpster and his mother drives past him.

After being thrown out, Walter stops at a dumpster and saves, not his youngest son, but a Beaver hand puppet. The Beaver animates and swings into action to save Walter from suicide. The Beaver begins to channel Walter’s emotions as father, husband, and business alter ego.

The Beaver is the next significant symbol introduced into the story of Walter’s spiritual restoration. An ancient symbol of diligent home building and maintenance intimately associated with water, the first symbol, the Beaver represents everything that Walter has forsaken. A beaver is constantly upgrading and repairing his home; Walter has let his home fall apart. Successful beavers dam up the flow of water, the flow of life.

When Walter returns home with the Beaver on his hand he gives a note to everyone he knows, informing them the hand puppet has been prescribed by his doctor as a form of rebirth, and insists they address it instead of him.

Speaking with an Australian voice, Walter narrates the film’s progression at three key moments:

  1. Walter as the Beaver narrates the film opening with Walter floating on the pool outside his home:

This is a picture of Walter Black, a hopelessly depressed individual. Somewhere inside him is a man who fell in love, who started a family, who ran a successful company. That man has gone missing. No matter what he’s tried (and he’s tried everything) Walter can’t seem to bring himself back. It’s as if he’s died and hasn’t the sense to take his body with him. So mostly what he does is sleep. Shares in his father’s once proud toy company are as worthless as Walter feels. His family used to resemble something out of a holiday greeting card, but now seems to be in perpetual mourning. Henry, his youngest, may become what his teachers call “solitary.” He’d like to become invisible one day, instead of merely ignored by his own father. And Porter, his oldest, is terrified of becoming just like his father. His mission: to catalogue every dreaded similarity, every lip bite, every involuntary behavior. He plans on erasing them one by one. His wife, Meredith, has hidden herself behind her engineering work, night time conference calls to Tokyo, and rollercoaster designs. Anything to drown out the reality of an absent husband. Walter’s depression is an ink that stains everything it touches, a black hole that swallows all that get near.

The Beaver seems to change all of that. Henry loves having a Beaver/father who inspires him to create wood projects in the garage, as Walter’s own father inspired him to build a wooden race car. Walter’s relationship with Meredith is also rejuvenated. Walter, himself invigorated by the beaver, begins home improvement by repairing the leaking plumbing. At work, the Beaver even inspires a new toy that rescues JerryCo from bankruptcy.

But Porter will have nothing to do with Walter or the Beaver. The puppet is but another opportunity for Walter to embarrass his son. Porter’s interest shifts to Norah, the class valedictorian who employs him to write her graduation speech because she, like Walter, Henry, and Porter, has lost her voice, her identity. Ever since her brother’s suicide through drugs Norah has shut down. She has even thrown her love for painting into the trash.

Father and son both seem to be improving with the addition of the Beaver and Norah. Walter’s company has accepted their odd new boss and Norah has actually agreed to show Porter the remains of her art. And Walter emerges from a series of media interviews a new celebrity

  1. 2. The Walter as Beaver narrates the second phase of Walter’s story:

This is a picture of Walter Black, a hopeless and depressed individual, who becomes The Beaver who becomes a phenomenon.

However the accompanying music suggests that this new life is anything but promising. Frightened Rabbit’s “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” suggests that the flight from death by Porter, Walter, and Norah might actually be leading them toward destruction. The lyrics reinforce the images of water, emptiness, death, and new life:

We salute at the threshold of the North Sea

In my mind

And a nod to the boredom that drove me here

To face the tide and swim

(Whoaaaa) I swim (Whoaaa) oh swim (Whoaaa)

 Dip the toe in the ocean. Oh how it hardens and it numbs.

And the rest of me is a version of man

built to collapse into crumbs

And if I hadn’t come down

To the coast to disappear

I may have died in a land-slide

Of the rocks, the hopes and fears.

 So swim until you can’t see land.

Swim until you can’t see land.

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

 Up to my knees now, do I wait? Do I dive?

The sea has seen my like before though it’s my first

And perhaps last time.

Let’s call me a baptist, call this the drowning of the past

She’s there on the shoreline

Throwing stones at my back

 So swim until you can’t see land

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

Swim until you can’t see land

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

 Now the water’s taller than me

And the land is a marker line

All I am is a body adrift in water, salt and sky

 So swim until you can’t see land

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

Swim until you can’t see land

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?

 The father and son plots of Kyle Killen’s story merge on the evening of the Blacks’ anniversary dinner.  Without the Beaver (Meredith has forbidden his attendance), Walter almost chokes to death when confronted with Meredith’s wooden love box of memories. At the same time, Porter has taken Norah on their first date. But when Porter encourages Norah to resume her painting, and asks why she never talks of her dead brother, their date falls apart as police arrest them for spray painting a wall.

Failure with Norah drives Porter to sleep, another of his father’s hated traits. Failure with Walter causes Meredith to move her and the children out of Walter’s house and life once and for all. The Beaver has failed to save Walter’s home. In time it will fail his business. The new line of toy Beavers is trashed in familiar dumpsters by thousands of parents when Walter is revealed on television to be truly mentally ill rather than merely eccentric.

But as the Beaver increases in vitality, Walter and Porter decrease. Instead of saving his family, Walter’s Beaver has brought it to the brink of destruction. Walter sleeps everywhere. The Beaver has assumed Meredith’s old role of waking Walter for life. Alone, Walter visits Henry’s room.  He sees unfinished wooden toys, like the one left by his own father. In Porter’s room, Walter sees his son’s post-it notes listing the traits of Walter he hates. (Walter probably hated his own father for the same characteristics.) On Porter’s  wall he sees the words “Carpe diem”, the motto from the film Dead Poets Society (1989) suggesting his son’s identification with the character Neil whose conflicts with his father lead to his suicide. Walter decides he can’t go on like this anymore. He must act to save himself and his family.

Feeling alone more than ever, Walter reaches out for help. Behind the Beaver’s back, he secretly calls Meredith. But before he can ask for help, the Beaver attacks him with a challenge, “Can your mother stitch? Stitch this,” a reference to the 2002 film Joe Dirt in which the father character, Clem, challenges a school fire extinguisher with the lines, “Does your mother sew? Get her to sew that”.  This cinematic reference initiates the life and death fight between Walter and the Beaver.

The Beaver confronts Walter: “Haven’t I given you everything you’ve ever wanted? I gave you everything. I’m the one who loves you.”

Walter declares: “I don’t want to sleep anymore.”

Walter must do whatever is necessary to wake from his death-in-life existence. Walter decides that to live, the Beaver must die. In his wood shop in the garage he builds a beaver-sized coffin, and then cuts the Beaver and his right arm off of his body. Walter enacts, literally, the hyperbolic admonition Jesus gave metaphorically:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes outMark 9:43

Meredith, unable to get Walter on the phone line, sends Porter to Walter’s house to see what is wrong. The oldest son finds his father bleeding to death. If Walter dies, the suicide he has spent his life trying to avoid for his family’s sake will have come to pass. Porter, wanting to avert the curse’s power, gets Walter to a hospital and treatment.

With his father in the hospital, Porter is expelled from school for selling papers to his classmates. When his university (Brown, in Providence) rescinds his acceptance, Porter commits himself to sleep as never before. The father’s curse lives on in the son.

Walter, saved by his son, is on the road to life, while Porter heads in the opposite direction. Just as Walter watched Kung Fu on his motel television before his suicide attempt, Porter now watches the father-son King Fu series.

A text from Norah saves Porter and leads to a reconciliation at the wall where they were arrested. Norah has not only faced the suicide in her life which has shut her down, but she has created a beautiful mural for Porter. Porter reciprocates her gift by writing her graduation speech.

At the graduation, Porter’s thoughts are revealed for the first time in Norah’s opening words:

Good afternoon graduates, dead poets [another reference to the suicide of the 1989 film], painters, future Einsteins and all those in between. Today I’m here to warn you that you are being lied to. Our parents, our teachers, our doctors have lied to us. And it is the exact same lie, the same six words: Everything Is Going To Be Okay. But what if it isn’t? What if some machined experience that you inherit, like curly hair and blue eyes. What if pain is just in your DNA? And tragedy is your birthright? Or what if sometimes right out of the blue when you least expect it shit just happens?

Porter has confessed his fear of the hereditary curse of manic depression plaguing his family.

Then, interrupting herself to confess to her plagiarism, Norah reveals her own thoughts for the first time:

I didn’t write it. I waited for a lie to come true: that I am fine.

I’m not okay. The truth is, I’m missing something: The thing I love most, the face I wish were in the front row right now, the brother I’ll never get back. So what do I do with that? What do any of us do? Besides lie? This is what I believe: Right now in this auditorium there is someone who is with you, someone who is willing to pick you up, dust you off, kiss you, carry you, love you. So while everything may not always be okay, one thing I know is true: You do not have to be alone.

Norah, like Porter, has confessed.

But why have both Norah and Porter confessed their fears and admitted their needs?

Actors talk of their characters’ developmental arc: How their character changes from the beginning to the end of a screenplay. Clearly Norah and Porter have changed.

The question is: What caused their change?

Porter has changed so much that he voluntarily goes to see his father.  Radiohead’s Exit Music accompanies Porter:

Wake from your sleep

The drying of your tears

Today we escape

We escape

Pack and get dressed

Before your father hears us

Before all hell breaks loose

Breathe keep breathing

Don’t lose your nerve

Breathe keep breathing

I can’t do this alone

Sing us a song

A song to keep us warm

There’s such a chill, such a chill

Question: What has caused Porter, Norah, and Walter to “wake from their sleep”, to escape their deaths-in-life?

Answer: Deuteronomy 29:29 “the secret things belong to God”

Porter: “I’m glad you’re still here.”

Walter: “Most of me, anyway.”

Porter: “When I was a little kid all I ever wanted was to be just like you. When I got older I just wanted to be anybody else.”

Question: What has made Porter confess to his father, as Norah confessed to her graduating class?

Answer:  Grace. Amazing grace. Known as God’s Providence, the “blessings which God imparts to all men and women indiscriminately as He pleases, not only to His own people (Christians), but to all men and women, according to His own will”.[ii]

God let psychological breaking take place so that His spirit of healing might enter the cracks. God’s Providence sends His spirit wherever He will.  In The Importance of Brokenness, Watchman Nee observes,

First, many who live in darkness are not seeing the hand of God. While God is working, while God is destroying, they do not recognize it as being from Him. They are devoid of light, seeing only men opposing them. They imagine their environment is just too difficult, that circumstances are to blame. So they continue in darkness and despair.

God’s Providence causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. “The Lord is good to everyone and has compassion for everything That He has made.”(Psalm 145: 9)

That is common grace. God’s Living Water has fallen on them, as rain falls on the Rose of Jericho plant, a plant which looks dead, but which comes back alive with the addition of water.

The Beaver ends with the Black family on a rollercoaster, going through the ups and downs of life, together, and with joy.

  1. Walter, without an Australian accent, gives the third and final narration:

 This is a picture of Walter Black who had to become a beaver that he became a father so one day this could be a picture of Walter Black.

By the grace of God.

Michael Horton summarizes the worldview inherent in The Beaver:

God is Lord, whether in his secret counsel or in his revealed will, whether in miracle, whether in his common grace or saving grace, whether in his direct and immediate activity in the world or through his indirect and mediate works, whether in providence or miracle.[iii]


[i] Horton, Michael. A Place for Weakness. Preparing Yourself for Suffering. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), p. 70-71.

[ii] Martyn Lloyd

[iii] Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011, p.370.

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