When you look at the premise for a film like The Whale, one can only imagine how this premise could be difficult to pull off successfully. In the hands of a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, much suspicions could be raised, but he manages to pull off what might be his most hopeful film thus far. Perhaps that’s not to say he doesn’t find himself potentially dragging his viewers back into a territory of simple misery porn when the central focus is Brendan Fraser’s character and his deathly obesity, yet the case being presented is far more thoughtful. And like Requiem for a Dream was for many, The Whale can be tough – but when Darren Aronofsky is at his best, he shows himself to be a wholly thoughtful filmmaker. This is where I find The Whale lands.
As the film’s title calls back to Moby Dick, the metaphor is clear enough – Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, a 600 lb middle-aged English professor, going through periods of binge eating following the death of his lover. He is often visited by a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and the kindly nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who aim to console him as his binge eating habits are slowly turning for the more deadly. In another aim for redemption, he aims to reach out to his daughter from a previous relationship, Ellie (Sadie Sink), with whom he has become estranged from after having abandoned his old family. Based on screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, The Whale makes a fantastic case for the reach of onscreen empathy, as Charlie’s world slowly falls apart around himself, day by day.
If one were to talk about how The Whale approaches Charlie’s compulsive eating, Aronofsky chooses to frame it only raises questions as to what it feels like to live within the cramped space of his apartment. For this alone, it’s an approach that speaks volumes – and allows Brendan Fraser the ability to make the most of his performance. The Whale keeping itself contained to that space gives the viewers the feeling of the extent of Charlie’s own self-destructiveness, but with how his deadly eating habit is handled, it never falls down to boiling down his disorder to “becoming fat is dangerous,” but creates a perfect picture of the slow death that comes with being unable to fill a void left behind in the face of grief, losing touch with the reality around the self.
And it’s also a testament to how Brendan Fraser portrays Charlie in turn. Often noted is the controversial choice to have Fraser being portrayed within a fatsuit and heavy prosthetics in order to create the image of Charlie, but it never distracts as much as, going back to Aronofsky’s choice to keep everything within the confines of his apartment, it does to give you the feeling of being trapped. To that end, it becomes very easy to empathize with his self-destructiveness, but with how Brendan Fraser lends himself to the film’s monologue-heavy tidbits, given the nature of being adapted from a stage play, you can see a complex character being created in Charlie – never someone who saw himself as perfect, but never someone who meant any harm despite his own life choices. He brings such soul to his performance, like it was all he had left in him – one should not be shocked to see him being a leading awards contender.
The rest of the cast, as expected, is also excellent, but it’s Hong Chau who delivers the best of the supporting players. While each of their own individual moments together with Fraser have their highs and lows, it’s Chau whose role feels the most complex – capturing the frustration and anger in dealing with their own friend’s continued self-harming while aiming for nothing but the best as she serves as his link to the outside world. For myself, Sadie Sink doesn’t fully work as well, yet there comes a crucial point near the ending upon which you get a sense of where her own viewpoints of the world around her changes, especially within the film’s devastating climactic moments.
Perhaps it’d be easy enough to dismiss something like The Whale as a film that lived on the stage, for it certainly retains that feel – and yet Aronofsky is a filmmaker who uses that to his advantage. Surely enough, it’s easy to see why something like this can be divisive, especially when you’re considering the practice at hand when it comes to portraying a man suffering from an eating disorder, but the self-destructiveness present never feels like it stoops down to anything lower. It’s easy to be pulled within that world just on a count of how much soul Brendan Fraser puts into the role, but with knowing how bleak Aronofsky can get, it also feels like a nice change of pace to see that he has made something that feels so hopeful.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via A24.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play
Produced by Jeremy Dawson, Ari Handel, Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Release Date: December 9, 2022