Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter (based on the play by)
Stars: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins
To superficially assume the title of The Whale refers only to the obesity of its main character is doing the film a disservice. There’s more to it than that, but other than allusions to Melville, elaborating any further would be unconscionable since it’s the crux of the story’s most powerful moment.
As of this writing, Brendan Fraser has already won the Best Actor Oscar for his role, and with hindsight, it is well-deserved. Barely ten minutes into the film, not only was I convinced it was the best performance of the year, it’s easily the greatest of his entire career. Though buried under gobs of unnervingly convincing makeup, he delivers a stunningly emotional and physical performance. As someone who mostly associates Fraser with goofball roles, I didn’t know he had it in him.
Charlie is a morbidly obese, binge-eating, home-bound man who teaches English online. While passionately imploring his students to find their own unique voice in their writing, he keeps his camera turned off so they can’t see him. Charlie’s health is growing worse each day and impending death is looming because, despite pleas from his nurse and best friend, Liz (Hong Chau), he refuses to get the hospital treatment he needs. All he really wants is to make amends with Ellie (Sadie Sink), the estranged & angry teenage daughter he abandoned years earlier when he left her mother for another man.
But Charlie’s self-loathing isn’t the whole story, nor is the film entirely about him. With the exception of a mostly-unseen pizza guy – and even he figures into a key scene – the narrative slowly offers revelations about the supporting characters, such as the reasons for Liz’s tough love approach while still enabling Charlie’s worst compulsions, or how Ellie grew into an anti-social bitch who appears to hate everyone (Charlie, in particular). Then there’s Thomas, a missionary with dark secrets who seeks the redemption of his own and sees Charlie as a means to achieve it. Not everyone is likable, but the more we get to know them, we certainly understand what makes them tick.
Typical of director Darren Aronofsky, The Whale is occasionally off-putting and often uncomfortable to endure, and not just because of Charlie’s appearance or the particulars of his disorder (his exhausting efforts to speak, move and even breathe). Through much of the film, Ellie’s treatment of her dad – and Thomas, to a lesser extent – borders on abusive and we hate her for it. However, it’s those scenes that lay the foundation for the moving final act, where the true meaning of the film’s title becomes obvious.
Then there’s that ending. Some viewers might see it as frustratingly ambiguous, while others will consider it beautifully poetic. The final scene lingered with me for a long time afterward, and from an emotional standpoint, I can’t imagine any other conclusion being nearly as rewarding. Though many will vehemently disagree, The Whale is Aronofsky’s best film since The Wrestler.