Like a lost essay discovered in a drawer overstuffed with midterms and pop quizzes, The Whale completes a spiritual trilogy Darren Aronofsky started in 2008. Back-to-back the auteur made two stellar films focused on individuals who push their bodies to the limits: The Wrestler and Black Swan. Fourteen years later, Brendon Fraser, like Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman before him, delivers the kind of transformative performance that has been buzzed about since premiering at various festivals.
Based on a stage play by Samuel L. Hunter (who wrote the script), the story concerns Charlie (Fraser), an obese English teacher who seemingly wants no help regarding his health. As the film opens, he refuses to go to the ER after suffering massive cardiac attacks. No matter the pleading of his nurse/only friend Liz (Hong Chau), he refuses to budge. Does he have a death wish? Has he given up on life? Actually, not really. Although Charlie is trapped in a body that’s massive frame gives him respiratory issues, terrible indigestion, and heart problems, his attitude is only slightly resigned to his fate. Overall, Charlie is an optimist.
Still, he has understandable insecurities. As an online teacher, he’s frequently apologizing to his zoom class that his camera is not working. Among the young faces onscreen is a singular black box representing Charlie. Is this black void of his life a not-so-subtle visual cue? Sure, but this is the same filmmaker that somehow made hypodermic needles even scarier than they already were in Requiem For A Dream. Subtlety is not a tool often used by the director.
Structurally, the script maintains the play’s staging; the single location of Charlie’s home, mostly his living room, works well. The play, which opened in 2012, kept Charlie on the couch the whole time. The film allows Fraser some movement here and there to pick up pizza deliveries or other things that support his homebound lifestyle. Visually, the bold use of light that seeps through a rain that always seems just outside his home effectively highlights Charlie’s mental ups and downs.
Stranger Things star Sadie Sink plays Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie. Unlike the character of Max on the Netflix hit series, Ellie is a 180 for the young star. Cold and calculating, Ellie has reasons for refusing her father’s adoration. One wishes Sink’s choices as a mean teen were more compelling, though. Fraser and Sink play father and daughter believably, yet the character of Ellie is mostly one-note. The same could be said for another character played by Ty Simpkins as a door-to-door bible thumper, Thomas. A chance meeting brings the young man into Charlie’s orbit but again, as a character he’s less memorable and more a plot point.
Thankfully, although Fraser is the main reason to see The Whale, Hong Chau as Charlie’s aide, Liz, is terrific. I won’t spoil a shared history between the two, but Chau really allows her character to breathe more than the others. There’s a loose, grounded quality to her performance that is quite welcome.
As the third film in a trilogy, I never knew I needed, The Whale is the weakest, but then again, I rank Black Swan as one of the best films of the 2010s. The Wrestler is also quite remarkable. The Whale is anchored by Brendon Fraser’s bold physicality and tender verbal moments. Issues with some of the other characters aside, Fraser is more than enough reason to check out the film.