The premise and scope of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale might initially appear to be incongruous in the director’s broader filmography. While this assessment holds some truth (since when has Aronofsky been in the business of blandly tender character studies?), the film’s undercurrent of cruelty and corporeal strife is nonetheless perfectly situated within Aronofsky’s wheelhouse, though it happens to indulge all of the filmmaker’s worst tendencies.
Adapted from the 2012 play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also penned the screenplay, The Whale sets out to evoke a raw vulnerability that’s buttressed by profound emotional turmoil. It centers on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), an obese gay man whose estranged and embittered daughter (Sadie Sink) makes an unexpected reappearance in his life. While Hunter’s play does intentionally make room for audience laughter—whether uncomfortable or callous—Aronofsky’s adaptation attempts to present Charlie as a spiritually enlightened sacrifice. The Christ comparisons are rife (and spirituality is, of course, a recurring theme in Aronofsky’s work), yet Charlie remains perplexingly flat as a protagonist. Despite Fraser donning anywhere between 50 and 300 pounds of prosthetic fat for his role, Charlie lacks a fleshed-out interiority that, unfortunately, reflects Hunter’s original material.
Following his boyfriend’s tragic death years earlier, Charlie has coped by binge-eating and develops shame-based agoraphobia. Weighing roughly 600 pounds when the film unfolds, Charlie first appears to us during one of his classes as an online English teacher. Among the individual quadrants of young, healthy students in the Zoom-esque virtual classroom lies a black square, emanating Charlie’s voice but obscuring his image. His literal invisibility during his day job mimics his social ostracization, as he’s been estranged from his ex-wife and daughter after coming out. The only person who regularly visits Charlie is his close friend and personal nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who monitors his decline and regularly urges him to go to the hospital. After noting that his blood pressure rests at 238/134, Liz tells Charlie that he’ll be dead by the weekend if he doesn’t seek professional treatment. Citing a lack of funds, he refuses hospitalization, effectively resigning himself to a roundabout form of suicide. It becomes clear that we are watching this man’s final moments as he willingly embraces death—and the sentiment Aronofsky and Hunter bring to this set-up is entirely trite, exploitative and voyeuristic. In fact, Charlie is barely presented as human—merely a spectacle to gawk at until the curtain closes.
Due to his obesity and intense aversion to venturing outside his apartment, The Whale takes place within the confines of Charlie’s home. The claustrophobia of Charlie’s situation, a clever idea for a stripped-down stage play, somehow doesn’t translate here. Perhaps this is because certain corners of the abode—namely a locked room that Charlie once shared with his lover—are seldom explored, leaving the audience curious to peer into these restricted areas. \ For the most part, the film only ever strays as far as Charlie’s front porch, largely confining the story to his open-concept living/dining area. The film tethers itself to Charlie’s limited range of movement, with particular emphasis on mealtime or cumbersome care of his body. Despite the monotony of these daily tasks—showering, eating lunch, tucking oneself in for the night—Rob Simonsen’s score nonetheless conveys horrific revulsion. Through Aronofsky and Hunter’s gaze, Charlie is reduced to nothing more than a monster, evoking Frankenstein much more strongly than the work’s central literary allusion to Moby Dick, which lends the film its name.
To be fair, Fraser does a commendable job of injecting Charlie with a distinct personhood that the character could have easily lacked, though his eternal optimism does become grating as his situation descends into clear desperation. The majority of The Whale sets Charlie up to be a willing, weak punching bag for everyone—including his most cherished loved ones—never once retaliating or conveying an iota of dissatisfaction over his poor treatment. Of course, his unfettered spiritual wholesomeness is what makes Charlie the perfect sacrifice; a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) from the eerily-named New Life Christian congregation even hints at Jesus’s imminent return. Charlie gladly shoulders the suffering he’s been saddled with, believing his sacrifice will offer salvation for his loved ones. The Whale’s status as a kickstarter of long-awaited Fraser renaissance feels like a massive copout. The actor is undeniably deserving of any and all praise he receives, but being the best part of a hollow work is hardly the comeback he deserves.
If there’s one thing holding The Whale back from complete artistic debasement, it’s Hong Chau’s magnetic and moving performance as Liz. No other actor in the film (least of all Sink, whose take on adolescent angst is as uninspired as my mall goth phase) manages to interrogate their character’s motivations and dredge up uncomfortable truths about their own complicity in Charlie’s demise. Through Liz, Chau communicates the sadness inherent to caring for, and at times enabling, an unwell loved one. Without skipping a beat, she’ll chastise Charlie for his strained wheezes and then hand him a bucket of fried chicken. There’s a grace and gravity to her every action, providing both tough love and warm embraces for a friend she can care for, but ultimately can’t save.
After all, while Charlie struggles with a deadly eating disorder, his loved ones also cope via unhealthy means: ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, a salve amid a sea of banality) cradles a bottle of liquor when forced to confront Charlie, Liz signs up for ceaseless night shifts at the local hospital to avoid confronting her own heartache, Ellie smokes pot to temper her aggressive daddy issues. What Aronofsky and Hunter fail to fully address is how many of us are traversing the slippery slope that could very well lead to addiction—just one personal tragedy away from losing the shaky grasp that keeps our vices in moderation.
Upon close examination, plenty of The Whale feels reminiscent of Aronofsky’s past work. The capsule setting brings to mind his previous (and substantially more impressive) effort mother!, which also ties into the broader interrogation of Christianity and biblical figures among his films Noah and The Fountain. There’s also the focus on intense bodily transformations, a la Black Swan and The Wrestler, which similarly hinge on the grotesque nature of pushing a corporeal vessel to its limits. Above all, though, The Whale feels distinctly similar to Requiem for a Dream. It exudes the same icky feeling of watching characters willingly destroy themselves with substances that help numb their traumatic wounds. Both films provoke audiences to gasp, look away in horror and, most importantly, pat ourselves on the back for our seemingly superior impulse control. Aronofsky is adept at shocking, titillating and psychologically unnerving audiences, all of which is evident here: Charlie’s fatness is shocking, the scandal surrounding his condition is titillating and the psychological motivations of the characters are thorny and imperfect.
In trying to shoehorn a semblance of compassion, however, Aronofsky has created a cartoonishly reductive study of trauma that masquerades as noble tribulation. Then again, this classification also falls in line with many of his films. (For example, does mother! effectively unravel the eternal struggle against patriarchy, or does it merely allow us to relish in the depravity of one woman’s subjugation to unyielding misogynistic terrors?) The Whale aims for empathetic humanism. Instead, it exposes a callous voyeurism.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Samuel D. Hunter
Stars: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Release Date: December 9, 2022 (A24)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan