Amid all the conversation surrounding The Whale, most notably the celebration of star Brendan Fraser, I think it needs to be said that this is a pretty strange movie. Effort has, no doubt, been put in to deliver an emotional journey of a film featuring an incredibly empathetic performance. With that said, this is also a wildly over-the-top and stagey melodrama that relies on a deliberate gimmick. As noted, the resulting film is weird, though that’s not new territory for director Darren Aronofsky. Ultimately, it is the work of the actors that shines through. Still, given the constrictions of this highly theatrical production, I also found myself detached from feeling the emotional blows dealt to these characters.
Fraser stars as Charlie, a morbidly obese man (nearing 600 pounds) living a reclusive life as an English teacher. He never leaves his apartment, where it’s nearly always raining outside, and teaches via his laptop, with the camera shut off. Charlie has one friend, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who balances caring for the man and supplying him with his favorite meals. The Whale is set during a particularly grueling week, as Charlie’s health is failing him. He finds himself constantly in the presence of a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), and his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), with whom he hopes to reconnect.
The film never leaves Charlie’s living space. There are some exterior shots here and there, but the events are set in a confined space that even manages to contract, depending on the ferocity of the many dramatic sequences. Presented mostly in the academy ratio to further highlight a man who’s made himself too large for the world around him, it kicks off with an introduction that finds Charlie submitting to his own desires at the risk of harming himself. There’s a dark sense of humor to some of this, as Aronofsky finds a way for it, but one can’t not see the tone feeling as though it needs to constantly provoke the audience through intensity.
At its best, the direction, editing, and cinematography all work together to portray a peculiar sense of depth in Charlie’s eyes. As the camera moves around him, whether during an argument or merely conversing, this film wants us to know Charlie is far past using any emotion that would cast someone in a negative light. He has patience and respect for those he interacts with, and The Whale does what it can with this attitude to show the humanity in someone who’s pushed himself so far.
Obviously, a film like this comes into question when considering the enormous prosthetics and makeup needed to deliver its titular character. I don’t feel there’s a question here as far as what an actor should be allowed to do, as there’s an attempt to make Charlie otherworldly in a sense, having a clear reason to have made himself this way, with brief glimpses of him at another time in his life. The important issue concerns how the film uses obesity as a factor in its story. That’s a trickier area to judge, particularly in how Aronofsky wants us to focus on Charlie’s size. However, the film is far too compassionate for me to consider any sense of malice in such a production.
This is why Fraser is so crucial to the film’s success. Even with the issues I have, the actor has to pull off something pretty great to get the audience past his appearance. That’s not a statement regarding how to accept this weighty portrayal, but more with focus on such a significant visual center point that can frankly be distracting. So, again, having Fraser, a performer whose charisma managed to get him quite far in his early days as an actor, channeling such a gentle figure plagued by the guilt of past faults is a major benefit to this feature.
The supporting cast is equally impressive, even if the script by Samuel D. Hunter (based on his play) forces them to shout everything going on in their minds with nonstop frequency. Sink fares quite well, given her status as an impulsive teenager. There’s a lot of anger in her character, having been abandoned by her father at a young age, yet her continual presence never feels confounding. It’s because the script requires her to keep showing up, but even then, Sink brings curiosity to the part, which seeps through effectively in between screaming sessions and snarky responses.
Chau is also quite good here, building what little there is into something meaningful. Hearing touches of her backstory and observing her reactions to Charlie allows her to play with some interesting layers. Once again, a stage play means characters constantly need to show up and say something, but Chau must convey what it is to be an honest friend who is wavering between doing a great job as a caretaker, as well as hurting her pal.
I wish these performances weren’t hampered by the production. While not nearly as flashy as other Aronofsky films (The Whale has a lot more in common with The Wrestler), it doesn’t lose the way this director likes to put it all out there. There’s no subtlety in anything we see, and with characters essentially arriving to make declarations, I once again find myself being taken out of a movie for feeling too stagey, particularly since it’s matched with such an eye-grabbing distraction.
This is why the film’s best scene is shared between Fraser and Samantha Morton as his ex-wife. There’s a shift in mood during this sequence, allowing it to feel less predictable and more in touch with the actors. Fraser’s best work is coming opposite Morton, and there’s time taken for the film to breathe. It’s worthwhile and a hefty hint at how much greater The Whale could have been were it to focus in ways more akin to this sequence.
It’s unfortunate that I find the deliberate ways in which stage play adaptations retain certain qualities to feel like a hindrance, as I wanted to engage more with what’s being offered by these performances. With that in mind, Fraser certainly earns the plaudits given thus far, as does the rest of this cast, working with what they have. Aronofsky is the kind of filmmaker that truly thrusts himself into projects in such a way that they can’t help but provide strong reactions. That remains a reason for him to be seen as an exciting filmmaker. I just wish The Whale, while good enough, achieved mortal greatness.