Aronofsky’s latest has Brendan Fraser deliver the performance of his career
Darren Aronofsky has always been a director fascinated with the grand and epic internal journeys. He loosely adapted “the Bible” with Mother! (2017), took us into the lives of junkies in Requiem for a Dream (2000), and into the fractured minds of ambitious artists with Black Swan (2010). His next focus is on understanding the internal struggles of self-destructiveness with The Whale (2022).
The Whale takes place almost entirely in the apartment of Idaho English teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) who teaches remotely and is largely stranded at home due to his obesity. He is visited by various characters, from his best friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) to Christian missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), and even his estranged and harsh teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
The Whale is adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play of the same name. Aronofsky maintains all the action within the confines of the apartment, and yet his fluid camera work and play with sound and frame format, helps give The Whale a greater sense of depth. Hunter does a fine job in his adaptation as well, bringing forth his great dialogue and snappy character work, which flow organically from scene to scene. Likewise, we understand why the action is kept in one location, as Charlie is largely embarrassed about his size and paralyzed by his self-hatred from going out. Aronofsky intelligently chooses to focus much of the film around this character aspect, and thus brings a focus to the narrative that had been missing in other recent ambitious projects.
The clear draw and intrigue from viewers in The Whale is Charlie’s battle with his psyche; what makes him so self-destructive? Why is he willing to destroy himself despite his seeming cheerfulness? It is in these contradictions that you sense the meat of The Whale is. Sadly, Aronofsky and Hunter get sidetracked with supporting characters and surface-level plot elements, so that these deeper character questions are only mentioned in passing. This, along with tinges of problematic pity-messaging of “people with obesity are human too,” scratches The Whale’s ambitious veneer, and leaves us with an ambitious character exploration surrounded by a rather mediocre story.
The big buzz around The Whale has been around the incredible lead performance by Fraser. Fraser had been largely limited to blockbuster roles in the late 90s and 2000s, but had largely disappeared from our screens as he got older. The Whale proves that he’s matured into an incredible acting talent; he delivers a complex and layered performance, which has to deal with Charlie’s existentialism, paired with a peek into his pained past, as well as don the optimistic attitude that seems to clash against everything in his life. Fraser pulls this off and then some. Chau is the other standout, as the honest and caring nurse at the center. Chau is able to transcend the otherwise thankless “helping” character and gives her a lived-in feel, so that we sense a history and life outside Charlie’s apartment walls. When The Whale doesn’t have these two performers on screen, you miss their crackle and magnetism, and instantly begin to see the greater flaws surrounding the narrative. Sink is stuck in yet another mean and angry teenage role, which I believe she’s already outgrown; I’d like to see her in something a bit different next time.
In the end, The Whale is a rather intriguing film, which brings about curious questions about society’s nihilism and the inescapable whirlpool that self-hate can become. The Whale as a whole, however, is weighed down with surface-level introspection and the rather by-the-numbers plot. Aronofsky does a fine job at creating a sense of depth in the otherwise claustrophobic setting, while Fraser crafts the pinnacle performance of his career, one can only hope this will have him showered in further roles and offers so that he can grace our screens once again.