The Whale Review – Brendan Fraser Stuns in an Excursion into Unrelenting Miserabilism

Divisive director Darren Aronofsky sometimes wants you to have a bad time at the cinema because of the subject matter: Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and The Wrestler. Sometimes he wants you to have a bad time because he’s made a terrible film: mother! or Noah. His latest effort, The Whale, seems to split the difference – that’s not to say this is an overwhelmingly terrible film, but it is an excursion into unrelenting miserabilism that is difficult to forget, and ironically, sometimes difficult to forgive.

The Whale is adapted by playwright Samuel D. Hunter from his GLAAD award winning play and draws from Hunter’s own experiences as a gay man who carried a lot of weight due to his closeted lifestyle in a religious family. That Hunter lived some of the experiences he wrote into the film makes it difficult to doubt the authenticity of the emotion that the work elicits, however, the heightened level of drama, and dare it be said, the extremity of Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) condition often work against the piece.

The Whale opens with Charlie masturbating to gay porn that leads him to have a heart attack. At 600 pounds, Charlie is morbidly obese and is committing a slow suicide through binge eating. The slow part of the suicide stops being slow when his blood pressure reaches 238/134 and he is in the throes of congestive heart failure. Charlie has been living as a shut in for a long time, aided and enabled by his best friend Liz (Hong Chau), and teaching online college literature classes via the internet (he keeps his camera off).

Refusing to go to the hospital because he has no health insurance, Charlie makes the decision to die at home. With only a matter of days before his next heart attack is fatal, he makes the decision to try to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). He has also come into contact with Thomas (Ty Simpkins) a young missionary from Iowa for an end-of-days church known as New Life. As much as Charlie tries to rebuff Thomas’ attempts to save his soul, Thomas refuses to leave him alone. Thomas believes that he was sent to Idaho specifically to help Charlie, even after Liz discloses the trauma that New Life has wrought upon herself, Charlie, and Liz’s step-brother, Alan (who was Charlie’s partner).

What follows in the drama is a claustrophobic melange of images and confrontations. Frequent Aronofsky cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoots the film in 1.33 aspect ratio, ostensibly to create character intimacy, but the effect also highlights how small Charlie’s world is and how large he is within it. He lives a rich inner life through literature (there is a beautiful scene with Fraser reading out parts of Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’) but he also lives with unending grief and regret – grief over the suicide of Alan (that was proceeded by him suffering anorexia) and regret for abandoning Ellie when she was eight and doing little in the following years to contact or parent the now seventeen-year-old.

None of the characters in the film exist without indulging in some form of hypocrisy. Thomas’ goal to save Charlie is motivated by his own guilt over his past and when given the opportunity he reverts to the person he was trying to escape from by joining the church. Ellie is embittered and hateful – she spits poison at Charlie and enjoys making him suffer. Ellie is brilliant but cruel, enacting her own disappointment at being abandoned by a father she adored and being raised by a mother (Samantha Morton, once again making an incredible impact in a single scene after her work in She Said) who hits the bottle and the Ambien hard every night. Even Liz, who is complicit in Charlie’s disordered eating, is holding on to Charlie because he is the only link she has to Alan. Charlie himself tells lies to cover his own shortcomings, so when he eventually asks his students to say something true, he is telling himself to do the same thing.

Aronofsky has indulged in metaphysics and spiritualism in several of his films. From the sledgehammer effect of mother! and Noah, to the more slippery themes in Pi and The Fountain. The Whale, however, is the first time he’s taken on organised religion in a destructive fashion. When Thomas asks Charlie if he’s read the Bible Charlie replies that he has, twice, and he found it “devastating.”

Much will be made about Brendan Fraser and the ‘fat suit’ – but perhaps that is beyond the point of the film. Is the audience meant to be disgusted by Charlie? Yes, they are meant to feel the way that characters around him feel. Are they meant to feel empathy? Yes, but there is also the sense of watching a grotesquery that defies one’s ability to truly connect with Charlie. Aronofsky isn’t being subtle as scenes of Charlie binge eating play out as horror.

It is important to place the title of the film into context; Charlie is teaching Moby-Dick. His prized possession is an essay written about Melville’s book written by a surprising author. Charlie exists as ‘The Whale’ on multiple levels, but it his emotional attachment to Melville’s hunted creature that is more important than his whale-like physique.

Fraser gives an astonishing performance. Close ups on his beautiful eyes reveal just as much as the script does. Fraser is an accomplished dramatic actor although he was lost to some extremely middling comedy films for many years. His work in such films as Gods and Monsters, School Ties, and The Quiet American was often overlooked for his action films and comedies. Sink, Simpkins, and Chau all deliver solid work, but Fraser is next-level brilliant and deserves all the accolades that have been awarded him thus far. You believe in Charlie’s relentless drive to find the good in people because Fraser is exactly the actor who has had to search that out himself after being humiliated in Hollywood for years.

“Do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring?” Charlie asks Liz. It’s a hopeful and naïve question that is never given an adequate answer in the film. Does Ellie do what she does to Thomas because she cares, or is she just messing with him as she’s done with numerous people? Much of the film exists in the grey (like the almost permanently desaturated space of Charlie’s apartment). It’s difficult to decide whether Aronofsky’s character study is grossly manipulative or empathetic – it seems like it is simultaneously both. What is undeniable is that is a “feel bad” film with moments of catharsis for the characters – if only Aronofsky had extended that catharsis to the audience.

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink

Writer: Samuel D. Hunter (based on his play)

Editor: Andrew Weisblum

Cinematography: Matthew Libatique

Score: Rob Simonsen

Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Jeremy Dawson, Ari Handel

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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