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'The Whale' Builds a Contrived Drama Around a Powerhouse Performance


Published January 18, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Fraser gives a moving performance as a shut-in English teacher in Aronofsky's compelling but contrived drama. - COURTESY OF A24
  • Courtesy Of A24
  • Fraser gives a moving performance as a shut-in English teacher in Aronofsky's compelling but contrived drama.

The discourse around The Whale tired me out months before the new film from Darren Aronofsky reached local screens. First, a slew of festival honors led to talk of star Brendan Fraser winning an Oscar. Next, some critics assailed the film, in which Fraser plays an extremely obese man with the aid of prosthetics, as a gimmick and a vilification of fat people. And finally, The Whale outperformed other highly touted films at the box office, leading to a spirited counter-discourse claiming that critics are out of touch.

After all that talk, it was a relief just to see the movie. I wish I had liked it more.

The deal

Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his 2012 play of the same name, the entire film takes place in the dingy Idaho apartment of Charlie (Fraser), who makes his living teaching English composition online. Mourning the death of his lover, Alan, Charlie has spent years self-medicating with food at the expense of his health.

Alan's sister (Hong Chau), a nurse, warns Charlie that congestive heart failure will kill him in the next few days without medical attention. But Charlie refuses to go to the hospital. Instead, he arranges a meeting with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), determined to reconcile with her. Meanwhile, a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) keeps showing up at the door, determined to save Charlie's soul.

Will you like it?

The Whale makes us feel trapped. We spend nearly the whole running time inside Charlie's apartment, where the curtains are drawn, casting the interior into a brownish gloom. Aronofsky's use of the boxy Academy aspect ratio intensifies the claustrophobia.

Yet we also get a sense of how the apartment feels to Charlie: less a prison cell than a burrow or cocoon, a refuge from the unforgiving world that drove Alan to suicide. There, Charlie can hide behind his laptop screen with the camera turned off, dispensing advice to students in the melodious tones of a model teacher. Nearly immobilized by his prosthetics, Fraser delivers a riveting performance largely through his voice — by turns gentle, humorous, lyrical and despairing.

Some are offended by the very premise of The Whale: a morbidly obese man presented as an emblem of self-destruction. The movie offers some undeniably sensationalist scenes of Charlie eating himself to death, with the camera lingering on shots of him shoveling 3 Musketeers bars and pizza into his mouth. But The Whale also presents Charlie as a full human being, someone with whom the audience empathizes throughout. Like Nicolas Cage's alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, he is always more than his illness.

Then, however, the screenplay goes a step further and reveals Charlie as saintly, his imminent death as an act of self-martyrdom. And that's where Hunter's character study completely lost me.

The weak links are the two younger characters, particularly Ellie. While the playwright clearly wants us to see her as a volatile, rebellious teen, lashing out because her father abandoned her at a tender age, he amps up her gratuitous cruelty to a cartoonish degree. When her mom (Samantha Morton) pronounces her "evil," I couldn't help but agree.

Yes, Ellie is the vengeful Captain Ahab to Charlie's hapless white whale (Moby Dick is referenced throughout). But her characterization as a scheming bad seed is a problem, because the whole plot hinges on Charlie's determination to consider Ellie his legacy, the one good thing he's done in his life. Through dramatic contrivance, her unworthiness becomes a measure of his worthiness: Charlie believes so passionately in the deep-down goodness of all human beings that he will happily forfeit his life to give his seemingly terrible daughter a better start in hers.

But, one wonders, was it really impossible for Charlie to see Ellie all these years? How did this act of Christ-like self-sacrifice become the only thing he could do for her? The extremity of the situation doesn't ring true.

Fraser and Chau give such heartfelt performances, and Charlie's shut-in existence is so relatable in this pandemic era, that it's no surprise the movie makes many viewers weep. But its central plot mechanism feels mendacious, as if Hunter didn't trust us to care about Charlie without making him a paragon of secular virtues. We're asked to marvel at the contrast between his "disgusting" body (in his words) and his beautiful mind, as if we weren't capable of recognizing his humanity without seeing him as a saint dying for others' sins. While Charlie insists on believing the best of his daughter, The Whale seems to assume the worst of its audience.

If you like this, try...

The Wrestler (2008; HBO Max, rentable): Aronofsky seems to have a knack for giving seemingly washed-up movie stars the role of a lifetime. Mickey Rourke earned an Oscar nomination playing a down-and-out professional wrestler in this dark character study.

Black Swan (2010; Disney+, rentable): My personal favorite Aronofsky movie is yet another exploration of the extreme things that people can do to their bodies — in this case, a ballerina (Natalie Portman) determined to suffer for her art.

Breaking the Waves (1996; Kanopy, HBO Max, rentable): There's a weird strain of masochism in some art-house cinema. The Whale reminded me of this Lars von Trier drama in which Emily Watson gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a saintly woman who puts herself through hell to please her husband.