The Whale (2022)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Starring Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton
Release Date December 9th, 2022
Published December 7th, 2022
One of the biggest anxieties in my life is having food on my face. It's a fear of humiliation, I get triggered by being embarrassed. Logically, intellectually, I know this is not something worthy of serious concern and that it is an unavoidable fact of life, food on your face is normal, wipe it off and move on. But, my brain won't let it be that simple. Thinking of this aspect of my anxiety has me triggered. My eyes are welling up and I can sense that if I linger further in this space, I will become quite inconsolable.
I've rarely seen this type of emotional reaction, this type of triggered anxiety in a movie. It's quite difficult to capture this kind of internalized emotional struggle, the rigorous internal battle to stop yourself from crying over something not worthy of crying about. The Whale comes the closest I have seen in some time of seeing this kind of emotional turmoil, a roiling mass of embarrassment and shame, on screen. Brendan Fraser's Charlie captures this feeling in all of its internalized horror. If only the rest of the movie were capable of capturing anything remotely as genuine.
Charlie is a dangerously obese man who gets by as a literature professor at an online college. The shame over his weight causes him to conduct his classes with his camera off, using only his voice to instruct his class. Charlie's only friend is his caregiver, Liz (Hong Chau). They were friends before she became his caregiver. In fact, Liz is intrinsically linked to Charlie's past. She was connected to Charlie's late boyfriend, a man whose death changed both of their lives.
Throughout The Whale we will slowly unpack Charlie's backstory as a man who was once married and had a daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he would like to reconnect with. Charlie was pushed out of Ellie's life after he fell in love with one of his male students and embarked on a new life with this man. Ellie doesn't know that Charlie had wanted to be in her life but wasn't allowed to be. She only knows that he appeared to choose being with this man over being her dad and she harbors a deep resentment.
Much of the plot of The Whale centers on Charlie trying to reconnect with Ellie before his weight problem, and his unwillingness to get help for it at a hospital, takes his life. Ellie however, proves to be far more difficult to reconnect with than he imagined. Ellie's bitterness has hardened into an almost sociopathic cruelty. Despite Charlie's attempts at dressing up her cruelty as a kind of blunt curiosity, Ellie is rarely anything less than bitter to a toxic degree.
This toxicity is explored in her relationship to a strange young man named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who is insinuating himself into Charlie's life. Thomas claims to be a missionary from an extreme offshoot of Mormonism called New Life. He goes door to door with literature and, after meeting Charlie, and seeming to save his life, Thomas makes it his mission to save Charlie's soul before his weight kills him. Thomas is harboring a deep, dark secret that Ellie will spend some time drawing out of him.
This is the portion of The Whale that is the most poorly developed. The idea appears to be to establish Ellie's empathy and care, qualities that she has worked hard to hide. How they choose to portray this is strange, misguided, and simply doesn't track with what we see on screen. In fact, it takes a late monologue from Charlie to explain that what Ellie did was kind and helpful. Realistically, it appeared she was trying once again to do something cruel and it happened to turn out well.
Director Darren Aronofsky directs Sadie Sink to be an awful human being and I believe the purpose is to redeem her by the end of the movie. That redemption came off as hollow to me. It's quite telling that we are only told that she did something kind from Charlie's perspective because we certainly don't see it that way as portrayed by Sink. All that we see of Sink is cruelty, manipulation, and sociopathic levels of ruthless self-interest.
The inclusion of the Ty Simpkins character is very strange. He enters the story by accident and the more he returns the more awkward his inclusion in the story becomes. More than once Charlie has to tell the young man that he's not interested in him sexually and that's because the young man just keeps showing up. Is he dangerous or is he sincere? The movie toys with this too often before scuttling his story altogether in unsatisfying fashion.
These strange choices in storytelling and presentation make The Whale a disorienting experience. It's so disorienting in fact that I am tempted to want to see the whole thing as a delusion, something only Charlie can see, but that would undermine Brendan Fraser's incredibly. sincere, and very sweet performance. I would like to believe that Aronofsky would not undermine his lead but then, he does that anyway with the straightforward choices he makes.
Fraser and Hong Chau are serving earnest empathy, compassion, and grief in their scenes. That's completely at odds with the presentation of the rest of The Whale. That includes the title which is a reference to Moby Dick, though some could read it as an outsized insult to the weight of the main character. The Moby Dick allusions in The Whale don't have a strong payoff either. Throughout the movie Charlie clings to a paper, an essay, that was written about Moby Dick.
This paper, ostensibly written by one of Charlie's students, we assume, is supposed to be brilliant. Reading it or having it read to him, soothes Charlie when he's struggling and in pain. Hearing the portions of the paper that we do hear, it's not particularly good. It gains some emotional resonance for reasons not in the text of the paper, but it's unclear for a while why this particular piece provides so much comfort to Charlie. That's a problem because this paper has a role to play in the final moments of the movie.
Regardless of all of my many, many problems with The Whale, Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau are so good in this movie. Fraser, not especially known as a great dramatic actor, gives Charlie incredible inner life and emotional richness. His heartache is palpable and our empathy for him is unquestionable. Hong Chau as his only friend and fierce protector is Fraser's equal in every way. Her fierce care for Charlie is heartwarming and lovely, a perfect underline for how she's also acted as his enabler as he's slowly ate himself into near death.
Back to Fraser, watching him stuff his face with chicken and steak sandwiches was viscerally disturbing for me. The way he sweats when he eats and the grease covering his face reaches me on an emotional level that I cannot begin to describe. I am not a big man, I'm overweight, but nothing to the degree of Charlie, and one of my great fears is even remotely looking like Charlie does as he eats. Mr. Creosote from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life is evoked at times in just how grotesque the eating scenes in The Whale are.
The only reason I didn't recoil and turn the film off was my bond with Fraser. His performance is filled with such anguish that I didn't want to look away from him, I wanted to give my empathy to this character. I felt deeply for the grief and pain he was exhibiting. I felt deeply for Charlie, he wears the choices he's made in every layer of himself. His weight is physical but also emotional and Fraser's eyes communicate more than the, admittedly impressive, fat suit.
If the rest of The Whale were as well crafted as Fraser's performance. Sadly, too much of the film is deeply misguided. The needless cruelty of Charlie's daughter, the bizarre mental gymnastics needed to excuse her behavior, it all works against the strength of The Whale. There are good things about the movie but an equal number of bad things that stand out nearly as much as those good things. In the end, I am not sure what Darren Aronofsky intended with The Whale. I am baffled to explain what the subplots had to do with the main story of our care and feeling for Charlie via Brendan Fraser's performance.
Sadly, too much of The Whale is too deeply misguided for me to recommend it. That said, if you are someone who wants to follow along this awards season, you may not want to miss it. Despite it's remarkable flaws, Brendan Fraser, and perhaps even Hong Chau, will be in the Oscar conversation. That alone is the recommendation I can give to The Whale. Beyond that, I would prepare to be irritated and disappointed by everything except the performance of Brendan Fraser.
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