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THE WHALE fails to deserve Brendan Fraser's amazing performance

(or: How an array of awards-worthy performances, from an ensemble of excellent actors, are all trapped in a bizarrely terrible film.)

By Jack Anderson KeanePublished about a year ago 8 min read
Brendan Fraser as Charlie in "The Whale" (dir. Darren Aronofsky).

"I'm not interested in being saved."


I wanted to like The Whale.

I expected to like The Whale.

After all, I’ve loved every film Darren Aronofsky has made up until this point (yes, even Noah), and I was open to being as moved by The Whale as I’ve read many other reviewers describe themselves having been profoundly, not to mention moved as much as I heard members of my audience audibly sniffling and weeping by film’s end, men and women alike, many of them staying in their seats well past the end credits, just so they could talk about the film, or process it in silence.

But for me?


Something didn’t work for me here.

The script, mainly.

Everyone in the cast does such exceptional work with their performances - Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton, and an all-grown-up Ty Simpkins, all thoroughly acting their socks off - and yet it’s in service of a screenplay that’s terribly tin-eared, woefully unsubtle, and hopelessly heavy-handed (no pun intended).

It all just feels so phoney, inauthentic, and insensitive… which is ironic, considering the credits list a doctor who acted as the film's “sensitivity trainer,” which made me inwardly involuntarily scoff when I saw that credit scroll by. And also, considering that Samuel D. Hunter - the writer of the screenplay, and the original stage play it adapts - loosely based the character of Charlie on himself, incorporating various autobiographical details from his personal life into the plot of an otherwise heavily fictionalised/dramatised story, it's even weirder that what he wrote should still sound so false, so unmoored from feeling like it comes from an honest place. That Fraser's character of Charlie is fanatical about ensuring people express themselves with warts-and-all honesty and truth in what they say and what they write, even while that selfsame philosophy feels like it fails to extend to Hunter's own writing, is a fascinating, bizarre paradox.

As for Aronofsky, even he doesn't feel fully like himself here, in terms of how his directorial voice usually speaks through the written material. This isn't solely down to him not having written the script he's directed, because that was also the case with The Wrestler and Black Swan, and they were both absolutely phenomenal, and they still felt like the kinds of stories Aronofsky has always been obsessed with telling. Something that's still the case with The Whale at first glance, seeing as it's filled with all the typical thematic hallmarks of Aronofsky's filmography: addiction, self-destruction, grief, religion, social isolation and alienation, nihilism, fractured families, tortured minds, lost souls, fallible humanity, yearning for redemption or transcendence, and exploring the ways in which the human body can be pushed to grotesque extremes as an external reflection of the character's restless internal struggle to exist under the weight of living in a cold, chaotic, cruel world in which they've been left to feel they don't belong.

No wonder that Hunter's play resonated with Aronofsky when the latter saw it years before the film version ever came to fruition.

Darren Aronofsky (left) and Brendan Fraser (middle) in rehearsals for The Whale. (Image from IMDb; photo by Niko Tavernise.)

But alas, whether Aronofsky was the right choice or not to translate the very stagey play into an unavoidably still very stagey film is immaterial, as I'm not sure there's any way The Whale could have worked as a film, without completely reworking and fundamentally changing the source material to downplay its worst qualities. From its hokey aspirations to literary metaphors bashing you over the head with the glaringly obvious parallels drawn to Moby Dick, to its undercooked attempts at crafting nuance and shades of grey with the various characters (especially Sadie Sink's monstrous Ellie, who I'll be circling back to momentarily), plus its clumsy failure to handle depicting or talking about extreme life-threatening morbid obesity in a way that isn't salacious or demeaning, altogether makes the story an unintentionally exploitative and unsalvageable misfire at its very core.

Of course, it doesn't help that Aronofsky made a couple of backfiring creative decisions that undermined the alleged sincerity the film is supposed to be going for. This movie required the utmost delicacy and care to avoid falling into the Simple Jack trap, and Aronofsky has rarely been the delicate sort.

The foremost problem is the choice of including a score that sounds like what Rob Simonsen created for the film. In isolation, I like Simonsen's work herein as its own standalone album, as it's a beautiful, sorrowful, richly textured, and tragically haunting soundtrack that works as a classical music composition; but when it's married to the images presented onscreen, it turns the film into an overblown parody of itself, the attempted emotional manipulation of the music throwing the story's attempted emotional manipulation into stark contrast, shining a spotlight on how vacuous and shallow and disingenuous the whole affair feels, particularly when the Hereditary-ish moments of horror in Simonsen's score (which literally made me wonder if Colin Stetson had scored the film, before the credits informed me who truly did) convey the film's implicit belief that Charlie is horrifying and sickening and gross, which is a jarring counterpoint to the film's explicitly stated pleas for empathy and understanding. The music makes Charlie out to be a monster, even as the dialogue says we should be remembering his humanity, and I don't think the film understands the cognitive dissonance this clash of ideals subconsciously sparks.

I don't think Aronofsky re-teaming with his old pal Clint Mansell would have helped matters. In fact, my wish is that Aronofsky would have taken a leaf from his past choices in The Wrestler, and even more so in mother!, to almost entirely forego having any score at all. And that choice with mother! was really down to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson making the selfless call to tell Aronofsky the film was better off not having any music. If that kind of choice had extended to The Whale, and it had been just left subtle and quiet with only the sound design mix, I think the film might have been better, or at the very least would feel like it had more integrity.

A better take on a similar story to this one exists in the form of the 2015 BBC comedy-drama, Nurse, which I had forgotten about for a while, but which suddenly sprung forth from the depths of my memory just as I was writing this. In the series, the great Paul Whitehouse - who co-wrote as well as starred in it - played multiple characters going through tough times who all needed the help of the eponymous nurse, played by co-writer Esther Coles. One of Whitehouse's characters included Graham, a dangerously obese man who couldn't leave his house, and was struggling with his mental health. Like Fraser, Whitehouse also donned a ton of prosthetics to portray this character, and like Charlie in The Whale, Graham had a multitude of inner and outer demons that exacerbated his addiction to food to numb the pain. But the crucial difference between The Whale and Nurse is that, even though Whitehouse is most known for his comedic roles, he and Coles didn't write the characters in Nurse as caricatures to be ridiculed or laughed at, especially not Graham. It was all handled with humour, heart, tact, decency, subtlety, and genuine care not to stigmatise the subject matters it was dealing with.

From top to bottom: Paul Whitehouse, Rosie Cavaliero, and Esther Coles in Nurse (2015). Copyright: BBC.

Conversely, The Whale has all the tact and respect of a TLC reality show, by way of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, except it's one that just so happens to be shot by A-list cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and directed by the guy who did Requiem for a Dream.

Don’t get me wrong, of course Brendan Fraser’s performance is revelatory, and decidedly non-phoney in how visibly and viscerally he poured his heart and soul into this character, and I root for Fraser’s triumphant return to the spotlight after all he’s been put through in reality. I just wish the film itself was good enough to be deserving of his performance. Instead, however, The Whale feels manipulative, trite, pompous, pretentious, and cynically superficial, masturbatorily wallowing in self-congratulations at its unconvincing declarations of empathy, even as all the while it’s frequently mean-spirited and nasty in a way that doesn’t feel real or earned.

This is exemplified in excruciating fashion by Sadie Sink's character of Ellie. Sink's performance is great from an acting standpoint, but the character she's tasked with playing, and the dialogue she's saddled with, is atrocious. Ellie is clearly meant to be a troubled teenager who hates everything and everyone because of her childhood trauma, and who says and does bad things to others because she sees nothing good about or within herself, believes that she sees nothing good about or within other people, believes she doesn't care about anything or anyone, and is ultimately desperately in need of the redemptive power of love and forgiveness. I get that that's what the story was aiming for.

Sadie Sink as Ellie in The Whale. (Image from IMDb; photo by Niko Tavernise.)

But rather than that idea coming across as intended, Hunter's writing of Ellie instead portrays her as a conniving venomous sociopath, who storms around taking pictures of people around her without permission just to make them uncomfortable (and also to post to her social media to publicly humiliate them, alongside her pictures of dead dogs (no, literally)), as well as tossing out homophobic and ableist slurs, threatening to fake a rape accusation, drugging her father with sleeping pills, spitefully breaking a plate of food left on a windowsill to feed the birds, and so on and so forth. When the mother played by Samantha Morton says that Ellie is "evil," it's meant to be just her projecting her fears and insecurities of how Ellie has been acting in response to growing up the child of acrimoniously divorced parents, as that's what Ellie's character arc ostensibly is. But we are never shown any of Ellie's purported positive sides to her personality; we are never privy to a single hint of the light Charlie sees in her; she really is purely a cartoonishly evil brat for 98% of the movie, until she abruptly shifts gears in the final minutes to being vulnerable and humane, simply because that's what the plot needs for her to be.

It is a monumental clusterfuck.

Once it was over, the film left me in a sour mood for hours afterward, rendering me unable to feel joy in the music I was listening to on the long bus ride home, so that I could only listen to music that was as morose and downbeat as the film itself. (Namely I was only in the frame of mind to listen to Rob Simonsen's aforementioned score, plus Oliver Coates's score for Charlotte Wells' infinitely better film, Aftersun.)

The Whale is my Joker.

By which I mean: The Whale is basically everything that Joker was (not wholly undeservedly) accused of being by those who hated that film when it came out.

Now I know how they felt.

(For what it’s worth, though, I concede that if this had been made with James Corden in the main role, as was originally planned when Tom Ford was going to direct, this film would’ve been irrevocably unwatchable. Where Fraser is believably kind-hearted and sympathetic and soulful, Corden would have been mawkish and cloying and an utterly unbearable caricature… kind of like Corden himself, actually. So hey, count our blessings and whatnot…)

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About the Creator

Jack Anderson Keane

An idiot pretending not to be an idiot.

You can also find me on Twitter (for memes), Instagram (for the pictures), Letterboxd (for film reviews), Medium (for a Vocal alternative), Goodreads (for book reviews), and Spotify (for my music).

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