Discover more from Screen Reflections
Film Review: The Whale
True beauty lies within. ****
If there’s one movie that confirms the deceptive nature of long standing ovations at film festivals this year, it’s Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. When it had its world premiere at Venice, critical voices were drowned out on Film Twitter by those who exuberantly tweeted about the length of the standing ovation the film, and especially its star Brendan Fraser, received. Now, on the eve of its North American wide release and when all manner of critic has had the chance to see it, no one is clapping and the critical voices are deafening.
I’ve been around long enough to not believe in standing ovations at film festivals, but The Whale proves that sometimes first impressions really are best.
Morbidly obese English professor Charlie (Fraser) is eating himself to a slow death and the only person who seemingly cares is his nurse Liz (Hong Chau). Over the course of one week, Charlie attempts to connect with his difficult teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) while Liz tries to shake off an earnest door-to-door evangelist (Ty Simpkins).
The film is based on Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning Off-Broadway play of the same name. Adapted for the screen by Hunter himself, the dialogue is the lowest-hanging fruit that critics are hurtling at the movie and yes, in certain moments and scenes, it does sound stilted, recited, unrefined and crude.
The screenplay is certainly not winning any awards, but does it sink the entire film? No. Does it ever completely submerge the film in obviousness? It dips its toes, sure, but no. Hunter’s overarching story, Aronofsky’s direction, and the performances all rise above the film’s shortcomings and combine to create a genuinely moving experience about one oversized man’s oversized heart.
The story is immediately uncommon because it deals with a 600-pound man at its center. There just aren’t many stories about obese people around. It’s also unexpected in the bold way it deals with obesity. It doesn’t condone it, it’s not subtle about it, and it doesn’t sweep it under the rug. For those paying close attention, it also never encroaches into “fat shaming” territory. Hunter and Aronofsky do tackle obesity directly and in one particular scene, powered by Rob Simonsen’s score, even as a grotesque horror. But that’s because denying that life-threatening obesity is horrific would be dishonest.
In many ways, this depiction makes the film difficult to sit through. But it’s also pretty brave for an American playwright and film crew to tackle the subject this way in today’s day and age of “body positivity,” in which, as Bill Maher puts it, “we’ve moved on from fat acceptance to fat celebration.” Critics have predictably engineered a backlash for The Whale by calling it “fatphobic”, an absurd notion for anyone perceptive enough to realise the film depicts a wonderful yet deeply flawed man who has let himself go to an unhealthy extreme.
Aronofsky’s unflinching depiction of Charlie’s weight, his strenuous movement around his apartment, and his uncontrollable gorging on junk food is all a conscious effort to contrast it with Charlie’s actual character, which the film reveals through the relationships he has with those around him. The audience sees Charlie in his most intimate physical moments (masturbating, taking a shower, going to bed) and in his most emotionally vulnerable ones in order to get close to him before deciding what defines him. The way he looks or the kind of person he is? This question can only honestly be asked (and answered) if we’re shown the full picture of a person’s life with obesity. It can also only be asked by someone who is the complete opposite of a fatphobe.
The film’s emotional core is powered by Charlie’s redemption arc as he tries to reach his anxiety-riddled daughter who “hates everyone” and make her see in herself what he sees in her. Charlie is an impossibly good-hearted and positive person, a brilliant professor with sharp, self-deprecating wit, but he’s clearly weak-willed, and all of his relationships (to God, to the boyfriend he lost, to the ex-wife he left for said boyfriend, to his nurse, and most of all to his daughter) paint a very gray, emotional, complex and dreadfully human portrait. Through all that grayness, no other character in 2022 exemplifies more alarmingly how true beauty lies within.
No wonder Darren Aronofsky was attracted to The Whale. The film’s religious overtones and claustrophobic walls-closing-in interior hellscape setting is very reminiscent of mother!, a self-destructive father who wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter is pretty much The Wrestler’s blueprint, while the psychological toll has shades of Black Swan and the earnest transcendence of the finale recalls The Fountain. The film, dimly lit and grimly shot by Aronofsky’s long-time DP Matthieu Libatique, is compactly framed in 4:3 aspect ratio, enlarging each of Charlie’s layers (both emotional and physical) while condensing his apartment into an eternally constricted coffin. All of this makes the few exterior scenes we get feel like a breath of fresh air, every shot of a symbolic crow outside Charlie’s window more vivid, and that brightly-lit finale all the more dazzling. This kind of story is perfectly suited to Aronofsky’s bold and conspicuous direction and I’m convinced that no one else could have brought Hunter’s story to life on screen in a more effective way.
Then there are the performances. Pretty much every film that’s based on a play feels like it’s based on a play.The mise en scène, the way characters exit and enter scenes, the stagey dialogue, etc. Similarly, no film that's based on a play can work if the performances don't. The Whale is no exception on both counts. Brendan Fraser (much like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler) re-emerges from the shadows of obscurity like an actor with a new lease on life; it’s a real renaissance and obviously the greatest performance of his career. With the amount of unflinching close-ups Aronofsky doesn’t shy away from, the entire film would have fallen apart without Fraser’s committed and riveting performance, and not to harp on about that ending, but Oh My God, Fraser’s performance reaches a hair-raising transendental peak that is unmatched by any actor this year.
Everyone else - including the always-reliable Samantha Morton in a one scene appearance - is exceptional. Each have their own stand-out moments and none, except perhaps Simpkins, are overshadowed by Fraser’s central turn. Sink especially has the second-biggest responsibility in making the story and the film work, and she delivers. It helps of course that her character’s sensibilities are not too far removed from Max, the character we all know and love her for from Stranger Things, but there are enough degrees of separation to see this as a new step in the right direction for her career.
“People are amazing” Charlie tells his daughter, but are they? After reading some of the backlash I found myself wondering. Only for a few brief seconds of course, because people are amazing, even those who would rather criticise an artistic depiction of a hard truth (that being 600 pounds and eating uncontrollably is a horrific and terrifying disease) instead of applaud a film that depicts the selfless and good-hearted nature of a complicated man who weighs 600 pounds (and thereby challenging the stigma that fat people should only be ridiculed because that’s all they are - fat).
I for one am glad that Darren Aronofsky continues to make bold films about complicated people, unearthing the beauty that lies underneath the mess we call human nature. Also, just in case you thought it was all doom and gloom, The Whale is probably the director’s funniest film to date.
A man like Charlie, who has so much love to give but none left over for himself, is a man lost. But his attempt to do one final good thing before he dies is a story worth telling for the messages it carries, and a story certainly worth seeing, even if it’s just the once, for Aronofsky’s brazenly assured direction, some of the year’s greatest performances, and an unforgettably emotional crescendo of a finale.
Thanks for reading Screen Reflections! Subscribe for free.
Unless of course people think that being extremely obese is okay and not unhealthy.
The most recent exception to this rule is Florian Zeller’s The Father.