If anyone can see past the suggestive title, the oddball premise and the controversial casting of this film, they might be surprised to find it surprisingly tolerable.

Think what you may of Mel Gibson offscreen, he is an actor of great power and finesse, and here he delivers a searing performance as Walter Black, a clinically depressed toy company executive.

On the verge of suicide, Walter discovers a mangy, buck-toothed beaver puppet in a liquor store dumpster and uses it to communicate with his family and colleagues. Speaking through the puppet with a Cockney growl, Walter is able to express feelings about his pain, his self-esteem and his sanity that are too painful to confront otherwise.

Jodie Foster, who co-stars as Walter's anxious wife, directs the film in an unadorned, earnest manner. The look and rhythms of the piece suggest "The Beaver" will be a sentimental psychoanalytic homily, but her tale is darker, stranger, funnier and more complicated than the setup suggests.

"The Beaver" is a story of an entire family in crisis. Even before Walter's breakdown, his son (Anton Yelchin), a high school senior, turned away from him, filling a bedroom wall with Post-It notes of his father's traits that he wants to avoid. Walter's wife masks her nervous tension beneath a chipper veneer, insisting that Walter can snap out of his depression if he just gets a grip on himself. In a harrowing anniversary dinner scene Foster pleads for things to return to the way they used to be. "Don't you understand?" the Beaver replies. "That man is dead."

Throughout the film Walter's spokes-puppet becomes a distinct personality with drives of its own, telling jokes, making bold business decisions and verbally challenging Walter. As his toy business gains media attention for launching a craze, Walter enters the national spotlight as the kook of the week.

He doesn't humiliate himself, however. The Beaver acquits itself well, speaking eloquently in broadcast interviews and becoming Walter's dominant alter ego. In time, it becomes a kind of parasite, demanding a disturbing degree of control over its host. In its last minutes the film goes very dark, with serious threats to the survival of the Black family, and to Walter's life.

Gibson plays madmen wonderfully. He gave a loopy satirical edge to the loose-cannon-cop stock character in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, and in "Conspiracy Theory" he played a genuine paranoid who uncovered an unbelievable government mind-control plot. Here, he's playing Walter for real. His confessional outpourings have an unsettling resonance with Gibson's real life. The part appears to tap into the actor's own demons. The nuttiest role of Gibson's life has inspired the best performance of his career.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186