The Whale stabs at hell’s heart

Director: Darren Aronofosky Starring: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton Running Time: 117 minutes

Darren Aronofsky has never really met a metaphor that he didn’t wield with the brute force of a berserk viking. His blunt and bleak bluster has worked to great effect in previous films; he gives actors a lot of road to run to find their performance, with award-winning results, and when the films are sufficiently streamlined, those big performances and his fraught, wrought storytelling make for great melodrama (like The Wrestler). Or he overdoes it and loses the audience, hard (like mother!).

The mixed reviews for that last film were hard on Aronofsky, and in that sense it’s admirable that he has swung hard in his latest film The Whale, a story set up to attract think pieces, discussion and disagreement. Is this depiction of an obese man’s last days offensive misery porn disgusted by its subject? Or is it an emotional tour-de-force filled with heart and profundity? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle, sliding either side depending on where you usually find yourself landing with this director and his performers. 

Adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, The Whale sticks closely to the structure of the stage, confined to the one apartment in the same way that its lead character Charlie is. Having developed an eating disorder after the death of his boyfriend, Brendan Fraser’s Charlie teaches English classes online, his camera always off, his friend Liz (Hong Chau) his only visitor. Charlie is a kind-hearted but withdrawn figure, convinced that he’s disgusting, constantly apologising. He is adamant though about not going to the hospital, accepting only the assistance that Liz is wiling to provide between her nursing shifts. As he realises that he’s dying, Charlie attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he has not seen and who hates him heavily after he left her and her mother years ago. Charlie is desperate even for her resentful and reluctant company, and we track a week as he’s visited variously by her, Liz and an over-eager missionary (Ty Simpkins), who is determined to save his soul.
Charlie however, doesn’t seem interested in saving either his body or his soul, and it’s the nuances in and out of this matter that are the crux of how The Whale will be emotionally received. Charlie’s guilt, shame and grief, and its connection to his eating disorder, are complex and confrontational subject matter, and the film’s stance on Charlie’s size is likewise layered. Putting Fraser in extensive prosthetics and effects, the camera tracking his struggles to move from one room to another at tortuous pace, the score swelling harshly at the junk food in his apartment, seems to make a spectacle of its main character, but the root of that spectacle is the most significant thing to question in determining whether the film and its view of Charlie is emotionally honest. Insofar as fat people are treated like they should be ashamed, that they have in some way failed, that they are not masters of their own fate, those cruel societal attitudes are internalised and externalised alike in Brendan Fraser’s performance of Charlie, a loving, insightful optimist who has been positioned to be lonely, isolated and resigned. Though the framing can be at odds with the heart that it’s trying to capture, he drags it back onside to its compassionate aims.

The film rests on Fraser’s ability to carry that meaning and that delicately constructed character, which he does with his signature warmth and sincerity. Coasting neither on the effects, nor on the goodwill that audiences are willing to give after his first major film role for years, Fraser fills the role with a dignity that Aronosfky’s camera is more reluctant to give; the combination of his pained sadness but steadfast good nature going a long way. Charlie’s resolute belief in people even despite themselves is most particularly tested by Ellie, a mean-spirited terror teen in whom he can only see kindness and potential. Sink does well in what could be a two-dimensional part, putting defensive streaks behind every acid-tongued line. In her, and in Hong Chau’s no-nonsense, emotional turn as Liz, the risk of tipping into over-acting is always there, but they’re grounded by the chemistry with Fraser and they each bring a human element to their broadly drawn roles. Everyone who interacts with Charlie is meant to reflect some aspect of him back to us, including Samanatha Morton in one crucial scene, the bitter ex-wife who thaws by a half degree seeing him for the first time in years. Such fine margins are the crux of The Whale’s views on how we see and care for each other, but has Aronofsky ever been the man for the fine margins? There are big emotional places to go with the film, but the uncertainty over how it takes you to them makes it difficult to dive all the way in.

As it veers between the tender and the tawdry, The Whale circles themes that the director has explored at length already. Religious devotion, human suffering, how possible it is to repair relationships, the director has been here before and put himself under less constraints. With the benefit of the doubt, and the massive benefit of performances that provide the necessary soul to a creator so often indecisively soulless, the film delivers an uneven earnestness.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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