Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter (Based on The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
By Calum Cooper
Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker that has always explored darkness. Whether he tackles drug addiction in “Requiem for a Dream” (2000) or obsessive artists in “Black Swan” (2010), Aronofsky captures pathos in grim, even uncomfortable detail. “The Whale” (2022) is on brand for Aronofsky’s style of filmmaking. Yet its examinations of grief, loathing, and purpose are underpinned by a quiet but powerful optimism for the hidden potential of life.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an online English lecturer who is at death’s door. He is confined to his house due to his morbid obesity of 600 pounds. As he himself describes, Charlie was always big, but the sorrow he experienced following the death of his boyfriend, Alan, has caused his weight to become out of control. His caregiver, Liz (Hong Chau), wants him to go to the hospital, due to his now life threatening blood pressure. But Charlie has resigned himself to his fate. Instead, he wants to use what little time he has left to reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he left behind after falling in love with Alan.
So fatalistic is Charlie that he has his favourite essay on hand, ready to read one last time. The essay concerns Moby-Dick, the Herman Melville novel remembered for Captain Ahab’s obsession with a sperm whale. “The Whale” is an alternative title used for Moby-Dick, and its use here signifies the emotional core of the film. Just as Ahab strives for the whale that bit his leg off, Charlie strives to make peace with a daughter who now callously rejects him.
This is a film about characters feeling confined in emotional cages, and the aesthetic choices follow suit. Shot in an aspect ratio of 4:3, with murky cinematography of muted colours, it’s as though the film itself is trapping its cast within their own self-destructive tendencies. Rob Simonsen’s sombre score permeates melancholic reflection as facial close ups highlight the spectrum of emotions the characters are experiencing under the surface. Gloomy and eerie, these images are quintessential Aronofsky. Although, there is a degree of theatricality to it. The otherwise sharp dialogue between the characters is often on-the-nose with its messaging, while the way characters come and go from Charlie’s house is one of the bumpier translations from Samuel D. Hunter’s stage play.
Literature plays a vital role in the narrative and thematic planes of “The Whale”. As an English lecturer, Charlie is tuned into the complexities of literature, and specifically essay writing. He is able to find the beauty in others’ writing. The reason he keeps the Moby-Dick essay close by is because of its eloquent honesty more than its stylistic writing. This becomes an effective tool when Ellie approaches him to rewrite her English essay for her, for this ability to find inner positivity is what drives their hostile interactions.
“”The Whale” is a devastating ode to the complexity of human beings, and the inner beauty one can find behind even the most destructive of feelings towards self and others.”
While the conversations can be frank in their discussions on theme, the characters are intricately crafted in ways that match the visual aesthetic. Liz’s bluntness is a veil which she uses to cover her own sorrow. Ellie’s brash abusiveness comes from a place of hatred for herself as much as her father. Similarly, where Charlie appreciates the inner beauty of humans and writing, this appreciation does not extend to himself. Although a well-mannered and caring individual, he understands the gravity of his past and present choices. He hates himself because of this. When he asks Ellie “who would want me in their lives”, it shatters one’s heart into a million pieces. Yet, despite his self-loathing, he can find joy in the smallest of details. A notable example is when Ellie writes a poem designed to express fury towards her father. But when Charlie realises her hurtful words make a haiku, he can’t help but admire the strength of her writing.
It is the empathy the film feels towards its characters that turns it from a reasonably well crafted mood piece into something deeply eviscerating. Most of all, it is the acting that makes “The Whale” so affecting. Hong Chau brings an assertiveness to her role that wonderfully complements the message of hidden potential, as her mask slowly slips the more ill Charlie gets. Sadie Sink is an up-and-coming tour de force of an actor. Ellie is, by most outward appearances, a cruel person; one who is difficult for any actor to play. But Sink’s portrayal draws attention to some of the greyer, more sympathetic qualities deep within. Behind her borderline sadistic disrespect is someone processing and reacting to the years of abandonment she has felt. Sink’s acting is awe-inspiring.
But this is Brendan Fraser’s film first and foremost. Fraser delivers a career-defining performance that taps into all corners of the emotional spectrum. Pulling from so many sources of joy, fear, anger and misery, Fraser is nothing short of masterful! Controlled, vulnerable, and sensitive all at once, Fraser becomes one with the prosthetics and make-up his role requires to create something as heart-achingly devastating as it is quietly hopeful. His moments of silence and contemplation are as hard-hitting as his moments of visceral turmoil and desperation. Simply, Brendan Fraser gives one of the year’s greatest performances! It would be criminal for the Academy not to award him with an Oscar for this role.
However unsubtle with its messaging, “The Whale” is a devastating ode to the complexity of human beings, and the inner beauty one can find behind even the most destructive of feelings towards self and others. Owing much to Brendan Fraser and his magnificent performance, the film is a melancholic work of cinema that will leave you in floods of tears. While not Aronofsky’s best, it is another terrific addition to his line-up. Moreover, it is genuinely such a blessing to see Brendan Fraser back on screen. He has been sorely missed.
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