Time: 117 Minutes
Age Rating: Suicide themes, sexual material, drug use & offensive language
Brendan Fraser as Charlie
Sadie Sink as Ellie Sarsfield
Hong Chau as Liz
Ty Simpkins as Thomas
Samantha Morton as Mary
Director: Darren Aronofsky
In a town in Idaho, Charlie, a reclusive and unhealthy English teacher, hides out in his flat and eats his way to death. He is desperate to reconnect with his teenage daughter for a last chance at redemption.
The Whale was one of the recent awards movies I was most nervous about watching. This would be Darren Aronofsky’s next movie since mother! back in 2017, and it would be starring Brendan Fraser in the lead role. While it had been positively received on the whole, there were some polarizing reactions and controversy which made me unsure about how I would land on this. I would say that I liked it but had some clear issues.
Even if you didn’t know it beforehand, you could probably pick up on the movie originating from the play very early on. The Whale takes place at one location and consists of a small cast of characters. Even some of the dialogue feels very stagey, especially with lack of subtlety. Although there are some good moments, the screenplay and dialogue interactions can be very repetitive at times, though it usually fixes itself when it starts to feel that way. It isn’t a subtle movie by any means, whether it be with the dialogue or the themes. There’s a lot of things at play thematically, including religion, faith, personal tragedy and depression, and overall, I think it’s a bit messy and obvious with those.
The Whale is a dark and heavy movie, though Aronofsky seemed to try to aim for empathy with this movie, however the results are mixed. Much of the movie is bleak, and whenever it leant towards nihilism and hatred, I thought it was convincing and genuine. When it is trying to be empathetic, it felt fake and hollow, especially when watching the story play out. For a movie that tries to reflect the view of protagonist Charlie that “people are amazing”, the movie conveys quite the opposite. In fact, I would’ve admired the movie so much more if it ended up leaning into the hatred of the world and people, because at least it wouldn’t feel so hollow. Another notable theme is honesty, which is also something that Charlie encourages. It’s also another thing that The Whale struggles with. I don’t exactly like using the criticism “emotionally manipulative” when it comes to movies, since all emotions in movies are manipulated by the filmmakers and writers. However, certain moments were clearly intended to make you feel something, and most of them felt artificial to me. The more impactful moments for me were the quiet, tender, and softer moments, as opposed to the over the top dramatic moments, the latter of which had me feeling unsure about them. This also extends to the ending, and I’ve noticed that it made lots of people emotional and cry. In contrast with the other scenes which I wasn’t sure about, I knew for certain that I really didn’t like the ending. Finally, there’s been some talk about whether The Whale is fatphobic, and I really don’t have enough to engage in that discourse, but I can talk about the way it views its protagonist. I will say that I’m pretty sure Aronofsky doesn’t have a negative view of Charlie, the film is sympathetic towards him. Some characters do treat him poorly, but I don’t think the film views him poorly. At the same time, I’m not sure its empathetic towards him (ironically).
The acting for the most part does help to make the movie work better. Brendan Fraser gives probably his best performance yet, it’s very dramatic and he goes hard out for that, but I thought it worked. His character of Charlie is optimistic and believes in people despite the things he’s going through or the way people treat him. Much of the character’s positivity and optimism becomes redundant as we don’t really get to unpack that, he’s just positive because he’s just positive. Still, Fraser does help the character feel real and sells it as best as possible. Sadie Sink gives a notable performance in the movie, playing Charlie’s daughter, Ellie. I am fully aware that this is intentional, but she’s written to be such a menace and cartoonishly evil character that its hard to take her seriously. While she’s loud and aggressive, her character is pretty one note despite being one of the main supporting players, and it really could’ve used more nuance and depth. Sink’s performance goes along with that too, the angsty teenager scenes were pretty standard and she’s much better at the more emotional scenes, especially near the end. Hong Chau was one of the best performances of the film for me, playing a nurse and a friend of Charlie. While a lot of the supporting character are underdeveloped, Chau makes her character feel real, and was the most interesting and believable character in the film. Her scenes were really the highlights for me, her dynamic with Fraser was great and even worked better than his dynamic with Sink. Other actors like Ty Simpkins and Samantha Morton are also good in their parts.
Darren Aronofsky’s style and direction is usually very overt in his movies, but it’s been toned down quite a lot appropriately for The Whale. Not to say that the movie is directed in a basic way, it’s straightforward and simplistic, but it works for this story. It is shot with a 1.33 aspect ratio which makes you feel claustrophobic, especially given the movie takes place just inside and outside of an apartment. The murky and dim interior is also sets the right tone. Brendan Fraser is wearing a fat suit and prosthetics to make him look obese and fair is fair, he looks completely different. The score from Rob Simonsen is also effective, atmospheric and oppressive, even if it can be a bit overbearing at points. However, the direction isn’t perfect; I wasn’t sure about some decisions that Aronofsky made, mainly in the way Charlie was filmed. The shots of his body and the filming of the binge eating is akin to how David Cronenberg would film grotesque body horror. It’s done for shock value and becomes uncomfortable, and for the wrong reasons which work against the film.
The Whale remains a movie that I’m very conflicted about. Some aspects of Darren Aronofsky’s direction work, and many of the performances are great, especially Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau. However, even if you put the fatphobic debate aside, it has plenty of issues that hold it back from really working. The writing is so messy and mixed, from the lack of subtlety, to the rather hollow attempts at being empathetic, and to even the attempts of being emotionally resonant, much of it misfires and was a rather mixed result. I do wonder whether Aronofsky really was the right choice for this film. If it wanted to be more empathetic and human, then it should’ve been handled with more sensitivity and subtlety. That aside, The Whale might be worth checking out for the performances. I guess I liked the film overall, but I understand the people who really don’t.
Insightful review as always…my wife had Brendon on her TV show and he was so gracious and interesting – but we felt worse and worse as the film went on and simply didn’t buy the story being told for a number of reasons, although the performances are indeed terrific!