Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Darren Aronofsky is well-known for his rather off-piste movies with meaningful themes and stories that sometimes go to unexpected places. His style can be a bit of an acquired taste, and perhaps somewhat hard to relate to for many. The Whale is another that tests his audience, but with less audacity, if that is the correct word to use for much of what Aronofsky often subjects his audiences to. We also have the big return of the one and only Brendan Fraser to our mainstream lives (he has been doing bits and pieces over the years, but only recently has he started becoming more substantial in Hollywood again), and that’s reason enough to celebrate. But is The Whale truly the beginning of a Brenaissance and another reason to celebrate Aronofsky, or is this sea creature better off being released back into the ocean, never to be seen again?
Charlie (Fraser) is an English professor teaching college writing courses online. He also happens to be morbidly obese, something that came about when he began binge-eating after a traumatic experience. He is cared for by Liz (Chau), a nurse who is a realistic yet sympathetic friend to Charlie. He is visited by his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sink) and he attempts to reconcile with her through some bribery. Charlie also receives frequent visits from Thomas (Simpkins), a missionary from the New Life Church, a religious sect that Charlie already has a bad history with. As Charlie nears the end of his life, he attempts to make some meaning in what he is leaving behind as well as take some meaning for himself from those he will leave behind.
As previously mentioned, this film is less pretentious grandiose than many of Aronofsky’s past films, but that’s not to say he isn’t just as on-the-nose with his themes. Rather than allowing audiences to read between the lines of each of the characters’ experiences, and even allow us to potentially relate to them naturally, we are often spoon-fed Hunter’s writing through a ton of expositional dialogue and, if that isn’t enough, visual representations. A lot more could have been said through Fraser’s physical performance, which, yes, may have been limited due to the size of the character, but even those scenes where Charlie does physically struggle says a lot. Aronofsky failed to fully utilise Fraser’s skills as an actor when it comes to Charlie’s inner and outer struggles, instead just using said expositional dialogue to fully explain what is happening with Charlie, and similarly with other characters. That’s not to say the film is entirely lost – the themes that Aronofsky and Hunter build the story around are still poignant and often forgotten by society as a whole, so the film’s importance overall is not lost and does shed some light on people who perhaps feel abandoned, both by others and by themselves, and who might attempt to find meaning in whatever they have left.
The Whale is full of a lot of hard-hitting stuff, and much of it will definitely make some people uncomfortable and/or sympathetic, but many may also find it difficult to see past Fraser’s prosthetics. There are a lot of (valid) arguments for why an obese actor wasn’t sought out to play the role of Charlie rather than going down the fat suit and prosthetics route, but one would assume Aronofsky had his reasons. The make up and prosthetics for Charlie look decent, but it’s hard to suspend the disbelief with someone as well-known as Fraser and therefore his actual physical appearance. On the production side though, I enjoyed the setting of Charlie’s house, as it was possibly the one thing that wasn’t shoved down our throats – we could clearly see for ourselves how reclusive Charlie is and how claustrophobic his life can feel, cooped up in, essentially, just one room, bar the odd toilet trip or a struggle to reach his bedroom. The setting felt legitimate for someone in Charlie’s situation and the limited interactions he has with people.
In spite of the production’s shortcomings, credit must go to Fraser and the performance he turns in with the material he is given. I wholeheartedly wish this to be the true beginning of a major comeback for him, as not only is he a terrifically skilled actor, but he more than deserves it, much in the same vein as Ke Huy Quan after Everything Everywhere All At Once. Fraser himself has experienced his fair share of trauma in his life, and so I’m sure much of that was channelled into his performance. He keeps it mostly understated yet produces results when the story gets heavier. As I’ve mentioned, I do feel Aronofsky underused Fraser’s skills, but I think Fraser is deserving of a stronger project to really show off his capabilities. Chau has excellent chemistry with Fraser, and her character Liz balances well with Charlie while being a layered individual in her own right. Sink gives a good turn as Ellie, but she slightly overplays the troubled teen – she is missing something in her expressions that tells us Ellie is struggling internally and instead turns to “drama school” acting (generally kind of hammed up and not yet refined in skill). Sometimes that comes with a lack of experience in an actor, so perhaps it is just an area for Sink to hone in on with her future work. Simpkins on the other hand has a good ability to make us believe in the good of Thomas, only to twist our necks with the 180 he does. Both Fraser and Chau have been nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, something much deserved for Chau, I think, but this is not yet Fraser’s defining performance. His is yet to come, and I think he could one day get that Oscar for a film more deserving of his abilities.
Overall, The Whale is a good attempt to delve into different variations of trauma and the resulting consequences, not just for the direct sufferers of the trauma, but also those who come into contact with them. The themes are numerous (religion, sexuality, mortality, family, appearances, just to name a few), arguably too numerous, but then isn’t life full of all kinds of things that affect our lives negatively all at once? Aronofsky has not given us something to think about (he blatantly tells us what he wants us to know), but he has given us many things to remember as we go about our own daily lives. The Whale isn’t his best film, but it will sit well enough on the shelf between the likes of Mother! and Requiem for a Dream.