A film review by Craig J. Koban March 8, 2023


2022, R, 117 mins.

Brendan Fraser as Charlie  /  Sadie Sink as Ellie  /  Hong Chau as Liz  /  Ty Simpkins as Thomas  /  Samantha Morton as Mary  /  Sathya Sridharan as Dan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky  /  Written by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play




I'll defend writer/director Darren Aronofsky by saying that he's the kind of button-pushing provocateur that can be commended for tackling subject matter and characters that arguably many other filmmakers wouldn't with a proverbial ten-foot pole.  

I've always been of the decidedly love it, or leave it variety when it come to appreciating his work.  For every  masterful character study like BLACK SWAN or THE WRESTLER there have been problematic productions like his take on the Biblical story of NOAH or his too esoteric and odd for its own good MOTHER! and THE FOUNTAIN.  Now comes his THE WHALE, which, surprisingly enough, might be the filmmaker's most stylistically retrained and straightforward psychological drama that chronicles a severely obese man trying to reconnect with an estranged daughter that is disgusted by him.  THE WHALE features a career high performance by Brendan Fraser as the man in question, not to mention that he's flanked by routinely solid supporting performances throughout as well.   As a pure acting clinic, Aronofsky's film is pretty unimpeachable, but his overall handling of this subject matter is frustratingly shallow and more than a bit exploitative, which left a seriously awful taste in my mouth throughout.  

I remember the late Roger Ebert frequently using a Howard Hawkes-inspired analogy when it comes to praising great films: That legendary director stated that a great film has three great scenes, and no bad scenes.  THE WHALE most definitely has two or three great scenes that show the performers at the height of their respective game, but the rest of the film built around them ranges from being overwrought, melodramatic, peculiar, and, more often than not, to deeply unpleasant.  Like many of the films that have peppered Aronofsky's resume, THE WHALE is an exceptionally difficult watch, but not because it has sad characters.  No, there's something cruel about how the director's camera is fanatically fixated on this overweight man's gargantuan girth, not to mention that the film makes you feel like you're trapped in a room with someone that stubbornly refuses help to get better, leaving us being forced to watch him slowly die.  Some have described THE WHALE a sensitively rendered portrait of its doomed character, whereas others have pained to point out that there's less compassion for this man than there is a systematic assault in denigrating him like a carnival freak show for nearly two hours.  Personally, I'm falling somewhat towards the latter; there are many instances during this film when I felt that it teetered way too unhealthily towards peddling human misery versus anything else.    

The obese man in question is Charlie (Fraser, buried under what has been reported to be over 300 pounds of prosthetic makeup over his already fairly bulky frame), and the first scene we meet him in the flesh is more than a bit sickening.  The camera slowly dollies towards him from behind as he's on the couch masturbating to gay pornography on his laptop...and he nearly has a heart attack when he climaxes.  There's nothing inherently wrong with employing a warts and all approach to characters and storylines, but the manner that Aronofsky chooses to introduce us to this poor man - and empathize with him - is frankly tasteless.  We learn more details early on about the 600 pound Charlie: He's a writing professor that teaches courses online (he shuts his camera down and pathetically tells his students daily that he needs a new one) and he once was a fairly healthy and normal sized man that had a wife and kid, but later came out and had an intimate relationship with one of his adult students, who later killed himself and led Charlie down a spiral of shame, despair, and self-harm.  Charlie is so huge and unhealthy that he's barely able to walk without the aid of canes and walkers (even seemingly ordinary everyday tasks like taking a shower are a physical burden).  He virtually never leaves his Idaho-based apartment or has contact with anyone outside of it, with the exception of his personal nurse, Liz (Hong Chau, brilliant in the film's most thankless role).  She tends to Charlie's every health need, but she pleads with him (after checking his vitals on one particularly bad day) that he needs to go immediately to the hospital.  He declines...over and over and over again.



Charlie is not in a state of denial.  He knows he's at death's door, but wants no part of gaining any medical assistance outside of his home.  When he has an emotional panic attack - or seems to be approaching a heart attack - he quickly recites passages out of a student's essay on MOBY DICK (which gives the film its title and perhaps a bit too much on-the-nose obviousness on a literal and thematic level).  Charlie does have a couple of notable and unexpected visitors, like a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who feels that he can offer Charlie salvation.  Then there's Charlie's long estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), a 17-year-old recluse in her own right that has ample baggage to sort through with her old man that stems from the fact that he abandoned her and her mother when she was only eight.  Charlie desperately wants to visit his daughter more (and help her with her homework and writing), but she is unwavering in hating his guts.  Knowing that his time on earth is short, Charlie offers to pay her to spend time with him, which she agrees to, albeit with more of a motivation to be as toxically cruel to him as she possibly can.  

Let's talk about the film's most obvious - and well publicized - bright spot: Fraser.  It's kind of a misnomer to say that his work in it represents a massive comeback vehicle for him, which seems to completely ignore that he has been working relatively steadily on TV (and in the movies, to a lesser degree) for the past two decades.  It's accurate to say that this is his first major starring role working opposite a prominent filmmaker in a would-be prestige picture in quite some time.  Labeling his work as Charlie as his best (perhaps ever) is also legitimate, because even with the physical pressures of his makeup appliances (and how they all but hide the actor underneath) lurks a performance that tries to imbue as much heart, soul and humanity into Charlie as possible.  I think with a lesser actor the makeup itself would have done all the talking, so to speak, but Fraser is more than equal to the task of not only showing the staggering amounts of physical pain that this man is clearly going through, but also his warmth and soft-spoken kindness.  It's clear that significant kudos need to be given to the makeup maestros that Aronofsky has utilized here (Charlie almost always looks authentic throughout and we often forget that this is an actor in a fat suit), but Fraser deserves the most adulation for finding ways of making Charlie more sympathetic than perhaps even Aronofsky affords him.  There's a certain leap of faith here with selecting Fraser for the part, and one so demanding on so many levels, but it was a gamble that has paid off sensationally well.

Unfortunately, though, Charlie remains more of a perverse curiosity and a hard to decode cipher in his own story.  I should have pointed out that THE WHALE is based on Samuel D. Hunter's own 2012 play of the same name (which was culled from his own personal experiences), and much of Aronofsky's aesthetic approach here seems inclined to a less is more mantra (his career long cinematographer, the astounding Matthew Libatique, shoots the film with a 1.33 aspect ratio to systematically make story feel more visually suffocating and isolating within the confines of the prison that is Charlie's apartment).  The more grandiose flair that Aronofsky has demonstrated in the past might have proved distracting here, so he instead lets the actors and their interplay do most of the storytelling.  The performers do their part, but the script simply doesn't, mostly because it seems reticent about knowing what it wants to do with Charlie and what it really feels about him.  Is he a being worthy of our sympathy because of his condition, or is he deserving of what's happening to him because he let himself go and is now facing the dangerous consequences?  And let's not forget that he left his wife and child to be with someone else, leaving the daughter feeling rightfully vengeful and jaded throughout her young life.  Charlie is shown as being a sweet-natured soul, but other times he comes across as so gratingly selfish that he's impossible to relate to on any level.  

Aronofsky has gone on record that he wanted THE WHALE to be a moving story that allows for audiences to identify with Charlie and what he grapples with daily beyond his obesity woes.  His approach here hints towards an opposite and more transgressive handling, whether it was intentional or not, because THE WHALE frequently seems to wallow in fat stereotypes: People of Charlie's ilk are loners, mostly friendless, are unremittingly depressed, and would rather disturbingly binge eat their problems away versus seeking doctors to help save their lives.  I'm sure that this is, no doubt, true for many obese people in life, but THE WHALE manages to go out of its way to aggressively propagate these aforementioned stigmas to alarming effect at times.  I can get past the controversy of having Fraser - a relatively handsome, able-bodied, and, yes, slimmer actor - donning a fat suit versus actually gaining hundreds of pounds at the risk to his own health and well being (that doesn't really bother me...hell, Gary Oldman won an Oscar under similar production circumstances).  No, what bothers me about THE WHALE is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too - it wants us to like and feel sorry for Charlie, but then it voyeuristically turns his condition into a near horror movie/freak side show.  So many scenes have a compulsive yearning to have the camera linger on Charlie's body - and sometimes while he's totally naked - and bathe in his soul-sucking wretchedness.  When he's not pleasuring himself with online porn, he's knocking over furniture to get up and move around to perform menial tasks.  And when he's not teaching or interacting with others that come his way, he's binge eating (especially in one grotesquely gratuitous moment) in instances of cruel self harm.  THE WHALE careens too closely to puerile shock value dramatics, and it habitually never relents.  

There's an attempt by Aronofsky, I think, to delve into themes of remorse, guilt, sexuality, family love, and atoning for past sins, but it all gets lost along the way by his muddled handling.  Just look at the character of Thomas, for example, who is shoehorned into the narrative in an effort to bring a religious conversation to the material.  Aronofsky's inclusion of him seems half-baked at best and awfully contrived.  Despite Charlie pleading with this young man that he's "not interested in being saved," Thomas just continues to show up at his place, and when his own background and personal motivations are revealed, it makes the character feel all the more forced and lacking in purpose.  Charlie wants to die and make amends for things in his life, and allowing for this intrusion in the form of Thomas makes no sense in the larger scheme of things.  And what is Aronofsky trying to say about religion in THE WHALE?  Does faith have a damning impact on people like Charlie or is it capable of allowing for some semblance of spiritual healing?  I don't think this film has the foggiest idea.  

The beats that do work in the ferociously charged sequences between Charlie and his daughter and nurse in their respective scenes, and Chau easily gives this film its other superlative performance as this dying man's nurse that genuinely cares for his well being while simultaneously being a counterproductive enabler of his worst impulses.  And young Sadie Sink is kind of a revelation as Ellie, who spends a majority of the film hurling out f-bomb riddled tirades of pure hatred towards her father while trying to prevent him from finding a way to break through to her in a meaningful way.  The finest parts of THE WHALE involve Charlie using his expertise in writing to try to reach out and communicate openly with his daughter, who's clearly bright-minded and not without talent, but has so much venomous rage trapped up inside her in regards to her past with her dad that it threatens to sabotage any semblance of forgiveness she could have for him.  It's regrettable that these potent and dramatically charged scenes between Fraser and Sink get upended when the film moves towards its final few minutes that builds toward a finale that is bizarrely pretentious, unearned, and annoyingly ambiguous. 

When I finished my screening of THE WHALE I struggled to come up with what it was trying to really say about people like Charlie and what they're suffering through.  There are psychological underpinnings as to why he ended up this way, but the film only deals with them in a cursory and fleeting manner.  THE WHALE is more fixated on showing us the unending physical doom and gloom of this man's condition, and that's what ultimately makes the film's sanctimonious posturing so hard to endure.  Fraser is so good in his role - which hopefully leads to a renaissance of meatier film roles to come for him - that he (and his empowered supporting cast in Chau and Sink) almost mask away this film's hollowness.  There's joy to be had in witnessing Fraser commanding the awards circuit spotlight for his work here, especially after being relatively away from the Hollywood spotlight - granted, not completely - for some time.  I just didn't find much joy in watching THE WHALE, and it's not the compassionate or enlightening portrait that it yearns to be.  There's much in the way of provocation here, which Aronofsky excels at, but not much in the way of a true compassionate heart. 

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