The Whale Brendan Fraser Darren Aronofsky

The Whale wastes incredible performances by revelling in miserablism

1.5 out of 5 stars

Adapted from the play of the same name, most of The Whale takes place in a single room, its gaze focused on the couch where Charlie (Brendan Fraser) spends most of his time. His small apartment in Idaho is dark and brown, on the second story of a motel-like complex. The film takes place during winter when natural light seems sparse and filtered through a perpetual overcast sky that doubles as layers of dirt and grime that cling to every surface of this world. Even the quality of the image, speckled and grainy, feels unwashed. 

The visual tone suits Darren Aronofsky’s grim assessment of Charlie and his world. In our first introduction to him, he’s hunched over on his couch, masturbating. Brendan Fraser, wearing a 300-pound fat suit to simulate the figure of a 600-pound man, glistens and grunts to an inelegant climax that culminates in a cardiac episode. Quickly discovered by a missionary looking to preach the good word of an apocalyptic church, Charlie refuses to go to the hospital.

During this harrowing first episode, as he’s grasping for breath, Charlie asks the young man to read an essay on Moby Dick. The cadence in the essay is childlike, as it reflects on the tragedy of the whale and the author, Herman Melville. We learn the origin and significance of this particular essay much later in the film, but it’s clearly of utmost importance to Charlie. When he thought he was about to die, he needed to hear those words that he’s long-memorized one last time. 

Charlie teaches English online to a Zoom panel of silent, unengaged students. He pushes the students to be their best selves and to submit their work on time. As the film progresses, Charlie becomes increasingly insistent that the students abandon the rigid conformity of academic texts and submit more personal and honest stories. His friend and sometimes nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), has warned Charlie that he will likely die in the imminent future without medical assistance. As most of the film unfolds in this liminal zone between life and death, we sense Charlie’s desperate need to make a mark on the world and shake people up so they can be true to themselves.

A study in contrasts, people have connected with Brendan Fraser’s nuanced and intimate portrayal of Charlie with good reason. Fraser’s gentleness conceals a deep and cancerous pain that the playwright and filmmaker have articulated in the excesses of Charlie’s appetites and overflowing body. If Fraser finds light inside of Charlie, a desire to connect and to share his love for people and art, the filmmaking takes an opposite approach. The gaze cast upon Charlie is contemptuous, lingering on every grotesque detail without an ounce of compassion. Forcing this point of view challenges Charlie’s humanity, revealing him as a monstrous and symbolic figure rather than a real human being.

Much of the film lingers on long conversations Charlie has with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s on the brink of failing out of school, and her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), worries she might be pure evil. As we piece together the backstory of the family’s dissolution, the strained bitterness that runs through all their interactions makes more sense. The presentation of Ellie as a force of nature, not just careless but patently cruel, complicates the narrative. It does reveal things about Charlie, who is so willing to see the best in people, but it similarly feels like a thorn in the script’s intentionality. What, exactly, is this film trying to say? 

In part, Darren Aronofsky’s naturalist approach does not quite work with the script’s more symbolic and theatrical elements. The invocation of mythical and literary whales feels necessary in bolstering the story. Still, the story fails to integrate them in a way that transcends the otherwise straightforward reconciliation narrative. The performances, still on a high register of excess in line with Aronofsky’s preference for emotions pitched to 11, nonetheless err a little too closely with reality to land with the allegorical notes the play invokes by drawing on Melville and Biblical storylines. Perhaps these elements worked better on stage, but in the film, the storytelling never overcomes the overtly simple lessons and motifs to create something particularly engaging or meaningful. The story feels dressed up with grand ideas, but they’re never fully integrated or engaged, creating an uncomfortable dissonance that the film fails to reconcile. 

While bolstered with some incredible performances, The Whale fails to come together. It leans heavily on the grotesque and has allegorical notes, but they fail to amount to something greater. The simple and rather pat central story, anchored to the desires of a tragic central figure, is dressed up with big ideas and allusions that are never subverted or challenged. It takes every obvious pathway in miserablism, revelling in the decrepit and putrid self-destruction spiral Charlie has constructed for himself. 

The Whale (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

The Whale opens in Montreal theatres on Thursday, Dec. 21.


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