The Whale has been on my radar for a while. Aside from being Darren Aronofsky’s latest effort, which in itself holds a huge sense of appeal, it has also been touted as Brendan Fraser’s comeback movie. With that in mind, I was eagerly awaiting its release in the UK. Have you seen The Whale? Let me know in the comments below.
In contemporary American movie-making, there’s no one quite like Darren Aronofsky. He’s thematically ambitious in ways that are dizzying and crazy. This scope is often paired with a fascinating cinematic eye that often viscerally leaves an indelible mark on the psyche of moviegoers. Having said that, I found The Whale to be an empty and emotionally deficient experience.
Based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale is about a morbidly obese man called Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Realizing he is close to death, he attempts to make amends with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), to who he offers a substantive amount of money alongside helping her with her English essays.
For much of The Whale, I felt it was engaged in a tug of war between being a life-affirming picture and a brash, darkly-pitched black comedy. Part of this comes from the approach to its central character. Shot using an aspect ratio of 4:3, the film attempts to make us empathize with Charlie by showing how cramped and boxed-in he feels as someone who never leaves his apartment. However, the cinematic choice instead is used to make the audience revel in Charlie’s condition akin to witnessing an old-school freak show (made worse by Ellie posting pics to social media that often paint her Dad’s condition in quite unpleasant terms).
There’s a detachment I felt to Aronofsky’s direction that plays like a scientist being fascinated by an ongoing experiment. However, I think the miscalculation comes from the director pairing this with a sense of overwrought drama. Aside from a few moments where I was charmed by Charlie’s delight (in the form of laughter) that’s often paired with heart-wrenching pain, I found Fraser’s acting to be too performative for its own good. In fact, I found Hong Chau gave the most emotionally true performance of the film. Between her sharp and caustic nature, there’s an acute sense of subtle resignation and loss that Chau brings to her role as Charlie’s nurse and only true friend.
By the same token, Aronofsky’s usual juggling of biblical and personal themes feels like an exercise in crass judgement, culminating in a scene where a missionary called Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is being confronted by Charlie, suggesting his lifestyle is disgusting etc. In the past, Aronofsky’s biblical preoccupations have delivered (for the most part) quite profound truths about the human condition. I felt here it was used as a metaphorical stick to beat the main character with.
Ultimately, there’s a nugget of a good movie in The Whale. But it’s buried under a rubble of elements that often clash quite drastically with one another. For every darkly comedic moment (particularly apparent in Chau and Samantha Morten’s scenes), there’s a crass moment of sentimentality. Charlie often calls for honesty throughout the movie. However, the truth is that between mother! and The Whale, Aronofsky’s trapped narratives have often felt muddled at worst and one note at best. I’m yearning for the Aronofsky of Black Swan and The Fountain, who was able to pair the intimate and profound with delicate beauty.