Darren Aronofsky’s new drama The Whale, like the rest of the director’s movies, will be off-putting for some but for my money, it’s one of the best films of the year and one that will leave you all but devastated by the time the credits roll. This is thanks to a heartbreaking performance from Brendan Fraser, who deserves to run away with the Oscar for Best Actor this year if the Academy doesn’t have the nerve to give it to Tom Cruise—all due respect to The Banshees of Inisherin star Colin Farrell, who should be firmly in the mix, too.
Fraser plays Charlie, an English teacher in small-town Idaho who hides himself away in his drab and dimly-lit apartment—a minor feat of production design—ashamed of his own obesity, as he weighs somewhere around 600 pounds. This has led to myriad health complications, including high blood pressure, which Charlie knows will ultimately catch up to him in the end. That’s why he’s eager to reach out and make amends to his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, Stranger Things), whom he abandoned when she was just a little girl after falling in love with a young male student. Ever since that relationship ended in tragedy, Charlie has been largely alone, and largely by choice. He’s become a sad sack who feels like the world has nothing left to offer him besides edible pleasures.
Fraser delivers a heartbreaking, soul-shattering performance here, and what’s crazy is that he’s matched nearly every step of the way by Hong Chau, who plays his caretaker of sorts. She knows Charlie is in bad shape and needs to check himself into a hospital, but Charlie doesn’t have insurance and doesn’t want to blow all his money on medical bills, as he hopes to leave a sizable inheritance to Ellie.
About her… she’s a typical moody teenage brat who understandably resents her father for walking out on his family, and now selfishly cares only about herself. She’s very clear that the only reason she hangs out with Charlie is to make sure she gets that inheritance. Deep down, I suspect that she’d give all of that money up to have had her dad in her life growing up, but the film doesn’t allow Ellie to be properly three-dimensional, and as a result, Sink’s performance comes off a little one-note.
The other woman in Charlie’s life is his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), who seems to both resent and pity him, though the film never fully explains why Charlie allowed her to cut Ellie out of his life, forcing them to lose touch. Morton delivers her second scene-stealing supporting turn this year following her fearless work in She Said.
There’s also a whole subplot about a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) who is eager to save Charlie, but he doesn’t necessarily want to be saved and Thomas doesn’t really fit into this movie. He feels like a plot device more than an actual character.
Speaking of plot devices, Charlie is a writing teacher, which affords him the occasion to quote Moby Dick to his students, which is why the movie is titled The Whale, for those of you who thought it was some kind of crass joke aimed at its protagonist. Charlie instructs his class via a Zoom-like platform even though the movie takes place in 2016, but his students don’t seem to care that they haven’t actually seen their teacher all semester, given that Charlie is too ashamed to turn his camera on. He knows he can be tough to watch at times, especially when he attempts to deal with his inner pain by eating his feelings, from candy bars to full pizzas. Given how this film ends with an incredible emotional climax, I think the Moby Dick device works—though it may be a little too on-the-nose for some viewers.
Aided by his longtime cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose work doesn’t call attention to itself, Aronofsky does a good job of livening up the film’s visual presentation despite the claustrophobic nature of the story, and I think it helps to have had Samuel D. Hunter adapt his own stageplay for the big screen, as he understands the character of Charlie better than anyone along with the narrative needle that he’s trying to thread.
Aronofsky clearly plays up Charlie’s size, but the camera never seems to judge him, nor does it turn him into a monster to be feared. Instead, there’s a sympathetic gaze and a sensitivity that reminded me of James Mangold’s film Heavy.
Fraser has always been a big boy, but here he becomes a 600-pound man thanks to a blend of makeup, prosthetics, and CGI, and while some might think that Fraser’s performance only succeeds on the strength of his physical transformation, I’d argue that it’s even harder to act from beneath such prosthetics, as the actor must ensure that we don’t get distracted and still care about the character.
The magic of Fraser’s performance here lies in his marvelously expressive eyes, which are practically bulging with love, though frosted in fear that he’ll never again find someone to direct that love toward. There’s a boyish charm in those eyes, and if you look close enough, you can also sense a fighter behind them. Fraser also imbues Charlie with a quick wit that doesn’t seem to match his physical stature. This is the kind of committed performance that brought Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman kudos for their turns in Aronofsky’s previous films The Wrestler and Black Swan.
Clearly, the director can work wonders with the right actor, one who’s willing to completely give themselves over to the process. The Whale proves to be a perfect pairing then. It’s a massive success, even though I fully admit that it won’t be for everyone.