Review: In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Brendan Fraser Delivers a Career-Best Performance of Transformation and Grace
A difficult watch at times (but not for the reasons many are saying), director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (based on the acclaimed play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay) is the sometimes-disturbing, often-uplifting story of reclusive college English teacher Charlie (a career-best performance by Brendan Fraser), who teaches his classes via Zoom with his camera turned off. He does this primarily because he thinks his students will judge him if they could see him, which is not an unreasonable assumption given that he has become morbidly obese since the recent death of his boyfriend, more than doubling his weight to over 600 lbs.
When he gets depressed or anxious about any part of his life, he orders a phenomenal amount of food and eats it all in one sitting. The reason the film is tough to sit through at times is because you’re literally watching a man eat himself to death, and he’s fully aware of what he’s doing. Knowing full well that he probably doesn’t have long to live, he sets his sights on reconnecting with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he effectively abandoned when he divorced her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), and who has been getting into trouble in recent months. He even bribes her, promising to help her with her school work if she hangs out with him from time to time. He goes so far as to promise her money when he dies; she has little sentimental attachment to Charlie, so the money seems like a worthy trade.
But there are other folks in Charlie’s life, whether he wants them there or not. His healthcare worker and friend, Liz (Hong Chau, also killing it this movie season in The Menu), visits him regularly and dishes out advice (both personal and medical); there’s a Mormon missionary (Ty Simpkins) who keeps coming to the door, and Charlie has a great deal to say to him; and then there's the disembodied voice of Dan the Pizza Man (Sathya Sridharan), who delivers both Charlie’s food and a pleasant voice of death behind his front door.
Charlie is the kindest soul you’re likely to meet in movies this year, but he’s also portrayed as a sweaty, grunting, gasping, barely mobile man with frequent chest pains who moves around his home making the floorboards creek and the room vibrate with each footstep, and I can completely understand anyone made uneasy by either watching someone living under those conditions or someone like Charlie being portrayed in such a manner. But Aronofsky has never been interested in making us comfortable; he’s always been about pushing buttons, presenting us with images that are meant to stay with us, and then asking why such things displease us.
The Whale is meant to elicit empathy, and have us root for Charlie getting the second chance he may not deserve, though it would certainly make his life easier. When Morton’s Mary comes to visit him, it’s a brutal reality check for Charlie on the way he handled his life when he came out and those he left in his wake. He’s not proud of what he did, and he wants to fix whatever he’s able. Time and time again, people are telling each other these days to be kind, but perhaps the better course of action is to be more receptive to kindness in all its forms. In his own small way, Charlie wants to repair a bit of the damage he’s done; the difficult part of his struggle is getting Ellie to care enough about him to let that message take hold. It’s a delicate balance, and Fraser’s performance walks that line with precision and grace.
The Whale won’t be for everybody, but it will probably connect with more people than some might believe. Despite its aesthetic (there are times where I swear I could smell Charlie’s house), by the end, The Whale becomes a soaring act of transformation and redemption, and it features one of the greatest final shots of the year. The film is both uniquely an Aronofsky work and something quite universal, a message for those who believe their past mistakes or current self make them outcasts in their own life.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.