Every year when the fall festivals start, I travel to Telluride, TIFF, AFI Fest, and New York Film Festival, hoping to discover some incredible films that may or may not be part of the upcoming awards season conversation. I attend these festivals not only to see dozens of films in a short period of time but in hopes of finding movies I genuinely connect with. After seeing Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale at TIFF, it is very unlikely there will be another film released in 2022 that will impact me the same way.
The Whale, based on a stage play of the same name, tells the story of Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser. Charlie suffers from depression and congestive heart failure. He spends most of his time binge-eating to cope with his traumatic past. During the day, Charlie teaches an online English course and reads poetry. After a horrifying choking incident, Charlie’s best friend, Liz (Hong Chau), informs him that he is about to die. Refusing to help he needs in order to save his life, Charlie decides now is the time to reconnect with Ellie, his estranged daughter, played by Sadie Sink.
I have often said that the less l know about a film prior to watching it, the better. That statement is true about The Whale. I knew nothing about this movie, other than the fact that Brendan Fraser was in it and that he plays a man who weighs 600 pounds. The key things that you should know prior to watching The Whale is that it takes place in a single location (Charlie’s apartment) and that it is very dialogue driven. Those raw conversations are what makes this film such a fascinating engrossing experience.
The script by Samuel D. Hunter is honestly one of the best screenplays that I have seen brought to life in quite some time. Hunter’s writing is so personal and authentic. As a viewer, you learn about Charlie and his troubled past throughout the 117-minute runtime. Every 20 minutes, there is a piece of new information that will either feel like you’ve been punched in the gut or make you even more sympathetic towards Charlie or one of the other characters. At times, I almost felt like I was a fly on the wall inside Charlie’s apartment as he reveals his deepest and darkest secrets and regrets.
Brendan Fraser’s performance as Charlie is a masterclass in acting. A true tour-de-force. Fraser delivers the best performance of the year, if not the decade. There are certain moments throughout the film where you can see that Fraser isn’t acting but rather reflecting on his own past and allowing those moments to take over the performance. There are so many aspects of The Whale that parallel Fraser’s own life, and how he was able to pull off some of these emotionally heartbreaking scenes is nothing short of remarkable. As cliché as this may sound, Fraser was born to play this role. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing it better. The amount of pain that Fraser must have faced while filming certain scenes must have crossed a line that most actors working today never have crossed and may never cross in their careers.
His commitment to being transparent about pain and grief makes this performance so spectacular. I felt his pain every single time he started to gorge or whenever he would break down crying. This performance goes beyond a depressed man who overeats as a coping mechanism. It is a story about a man with so much regret. A man who feels like he has failed repeatedly and has let everyone in his life down. A man yearning to form a human connection and find a reason for living. The Whale has so many layers to it that you can watch it multiple times, and I can almost guarantee you will discover something new about Charlie or one of the other characters every time you watch it. It will be easy for some to write this film off as a story about a fat guy with an addiction to food, but if that is the takeaway, those viewers are missing the point, as it goes much deeper than that.
Sadie Sink has grown much as an actress since her career began in season two of Stranger Things. Sink has, almost overnight, become one of the most exciting actresses to watch. Her performance in The Whale is unlike anything that audiences have seen from her before and has allowed her to showcase how gifted of an actress she is. Her performance as Ellie is very complex. Ellie, as a character, is easy to despise, but Sink doesn’t let her character become the typical angsty teen. Ellie initially comes across as a terrible person who hurts and tortures others. However, Sink’s performance allows the viewer to see Ellie’s pain and how she uses her anger to take out her frustrations with her past. This intense fight scene between Ellie and Charlie felt so heartbreaking I couldn’t help but burst into tears.
Rounding out the cast is Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, and Ty Simpkins, all of whom are specular in the film. Between Hong Chau’s performance in The Whale and The Menu, she deserves and needs to be in this year’s awards conversation. Chau’s character, Liz, takes care of Charlie, and while she gives him some tough love at times, she has learned to accept his life choices even though she disagrees with them. She’s a loyal friend and one who has stood by his side throughout all the turmoil that he has experienced over the years.
Ty Simpkins’ performance as Thomas is filled with mystery and intrigue. I liked the script’s unique approach to the “door-to-door” religious salesperson. Simpkins gets to share several scenes with Fraser and Sink; each one is equally thought-provoking and exciting to watch unfold. As for Samatha Morton, while her screen time is somewhat limited, I will say that the few moments she shares with Fraser are impactful and poignant. Morton plays the ex-wife of Charlie, and there is a lot of pain and frustration there. The conversations between the two about Ellie are difficult ones to hear but showcase how their child has been deeply impacted by their actions.
I would be remiss not to mention the creative artists who helped bring this story to life. While I know there is a lot of criticism as of late about the use of “fat suits,” what Adrien Morot created is nothing sort of extraordinary. The attention to detail and how authentic the body suit looked is like a work of art and shows the dedication to the craft. In addition to the hair and make-up, the film’s score, production design, and cinematography are all absolutely sublime. These incredibly gifted artists turned this apartment into its own character. The apartment can feel somewhat claustrophobic at times and then expansive at others. This film was truly a collaborative effort, and everyone who worked on this film, whether it was in front of the camera or behind it, brought their A-game.
What Darren Aronofsky has created with The Whale is incredibly special. This is a film that will stick with you and make you reflect upon your own life. It is not by any means an easy or fun watch but rather one that will spark conversations and debate. I can’t remember the last time in the past few years where I felt this deeply engaged and connected to the characters and script. The Whale is Darren Aronofsky’s best film yet. It is a profound and thought-provoking masterwork. The Whale is his masterpiece.