Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to provocative and difficult cinema. He has made a career of it. From the bleak downward spirals in Requiem for a Dram to the chaos of the frustratingly opaque mother!, the filmmaker likes to experiment with morbid, carnivalesque subject matter. Often, this experimentation involves the torment of the film’s characters.
With The Whale, it should be said, Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter aim to inflect Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) torment with a profound empathy. But this is also where the central problem of the film arises. The empathy is far from profound, and Aronofsky’s choices undercut the emotional intent of the script at almost every turn.
The Whale is about Charlie, a teacher of online writing classes who is 600 pounds and is informed early on in the film that if he does not see a doctor he will almost certainly die within the week. Instead of doing so, though, he attempts to use his remaining time reconciling his relationship with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
The film has received a good deal of backlash for its portrayal of a large-bodied person, something that was less of an issue with the play the film is based on. Also written by Hunter, the play won an Obie Award, a Drama Desk special award, and an honor from GLAAD. What might explain the disparity in critical reception between the two works is the framing of Charlie (literally).
Hunter’s script situates Charlie in a bleak situation. His weight gain is a direct result of the tragic death of his partner, a relationship which caused him to lose custody of his daughter who now ceaselessly resents him. But Charlie’s bursts of optimism for the human condition are meant to translate to the audience as hope. Maybe Charlie can rectify his relationship with daughter. Maybe he will give into his nurse friend Liz’s (Hong Chau) pleas and see a professional about his health problems.
In the end, this delicate balance of hope and despair is lost in a soup of indulgent melodrama, cinematic gawking, and one very clumsy metaphor.
The Whale is currently being championed most for its performances, particularly that of Fraser. And this is fair enough. Fraser does an all right job with this material, which asks a lot of him physically and emotionally. The real star of the show, though, is Chau, who is most comfortable with the high emotional register of the film. In any case, the problem is less with the performers and more with what they are asked to do. The last third of the film is a melodramatic mess of sobbing and pleading that is thoroughly unearned.
The emotional payoffs are unearned, by and large, because Aronofsky does not know how to handle this material with care. Instead of complementing Hunter’s script by placing us in Charlie’s worldview, Aronofsky alienates Charlie in the frame, and in the process he situates Charlie’s body as a fetish object of pain and guilt.
At the end of our first day with Charlie, the film pauses to watch him remove his shirt and slowly walk, with the help of a walker, to his bedroom. During scenes like this one, which focus on the bodily, the film is not asking us to understand Charlie’s emotional suffering or the tragic events that led him to his current state; it is asking us to marvel (in an Othering fashion) at the body prosthetics. The filmmaking — from the shot choices to the property department to the sound design and score — is not in tune with the central project of the film, which is to empathize with Charlie.
Which is not to say that the film would work perfectly without Aronofsky at the helm. The script itself is rife with problems as well, not least of which being the recurring metaphor that gives the film its title. Throughout the film, Charlie uses a book report essay on Moby Dick to calm himself down when his heart rate escalates. As a bit of character work, the essay is slightly clumsy. As a metaphor for Charlie’s state, it is embarrassingly superficial.
The Whale is a tonal misfire. It goes for haunting and grotesque in moments where it would be better served going for compassion, and it goes for compassion far too late (and with far too much fervor) to make up for it. It is not a fun watch, nor does it set out to be. But it is not despairing in the sense that Aronofsky and Hunter mean it to be. The film is meant to crush me under the emotional heft of the final few scenes, to feel a profound catharsis somewhere within the fade to white. It didn’t. It just made me wish Fraser’s “comeback” vehicle was a better effort.
The Whale: C
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)