Watching ‘The Whale’ after being aware of Darren Aronofsky’s candor for investigating what lies in the dark underbellies of the human condition might come off as a surprising outtake. After all, it is a movie that hinges on the idea of honesty and empathy; a whirlwind of cynicism is always floating at bay, but it is never able to hit the shore. So, if you come out of this stagey drama with tears in your eye or feeling moved by the cuteness of everything that happens, you wouldn’t be the only one.
For starters, it’s a story that works outside the world of the film more than anything else. Actor Brendan Fraser who plays Charlie – a 600-pound, reclusive English teacher, is making a comeback. After going through a series of setbacks – a divorce, his mother’s death, and depression in real life, playing Charlie, an estranged and isolated middle-aged man suffering from the weight of his past, fighting loneliness, and living his leftover life on his couch as the guilt manifests onto him, feels like a character he was born to play.
And boy, does he play him like a champ. Fraser commands and almost fills up each frame of this tale – a story that takes place entirely within Charlie’s second-floor apartment somewhere in Idaho. He is not a moderately obese man but is so huge that standing up from the couch and moving back and forth feels like it would need him to take life support. He sweats profusely, breathes with a wheezing sound, and gorges on a handsome meal of meatball subs with extra cheese in spite of clear signs of cognitive heart failure. It’s a character that asks for your sympathy, and Fraser’s honest and loving portrayal makes you fall for him, in spite of leading you there with manipulation.
As a viewer, you don’t want to feel manipulated, but Aronofsky does it with such exuberance that you forgive him. For instance, he leads you to the part with careful maneuvering. The first time we meet Charlie, he is taking an online class where he teaches creative writing. He is plodding his students to be extremely honest with what they are putting on the page as he hides behind the lie that his webcam isn’t working.
While in actuality, he is unable to really be okay with his current physical state and how it will change the perspective of these students who depend on him for the knowledge they acquire. It’s a hypocritical thing to do, but Fraser’s act and Aronofsky’s counterpoint of following that scene with a sequence of masturbation that nearly kills him, balances the manipulative gaze with some kind of potency. It also helps that he keeps introducing elements that question morality, religion, and the idea of finding kindness in the face of cynicism, making for an incredibly investing watch.
Apart from Charlie, we also meet some really interesting characters that either counter Charlie’s worldview or agree with it. Firstly, there’s a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who just happens to be at Charlie’s door when he is about to have a heart attack while masturbating to gay porn. This opening sequence also leads us to the calming essay that Charlie often reads when he is having an anxiety attack. While the movie gets its title from the said essay, the idea of keeping some of the elements in the progression of Charlie’s tale a mystery constantly helps us revert back from the staginess of it all. There’s also Hong Chau’s Liz – who plays Charlie’s nurse and his late partner’s sister. She constantly checks on him, makes sure he is okay and suggests him to get professional help while also allowing him to have the meatball sub that’s unhealthy for him. Chau is an excellent actor, and her commanding screen presence makes this character feel like an essential part of the story instead of just feeling like a helping hand. Look out for the sequence where she grills young Thomas for his religious stand.
The actual conflict of the story, however, happens to be Sadie Sink’s Ellie. She plays a narcissistic, angsty teenager who is angry at Charlie for abandoning her when she was eight years old to pursue a younger man he fell in love with. So naturally, when he reaches out to her to make amends, her anger manifests into hate, and these initial moments between the father and daughter might really put you off. There’s fat-shaming and bullying, and if these elements trigger you, I’d recommend you to stray clear of the movie. However, for those who can sit through, Aronofsky paints an empathetic picture of how everyone in this life is in dire need of love in some form or the other.
The gentle, honest tone that The Whale inhabits makes it a great character drama that slowly peels off layers of each person that we see on screen. It does veneer the darker elements that underline this optimistic underpinning (look out for the horrific sequence where Charlie stress-eats), but there is always a sense of doom that hangs around it. Almost as if it’s an end-of-the-world yarn that begs to make you want to smile and embrace those close to you with all their imperfections and shortcomings.
THE WHALE SCREENED AT THE 53RD INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF INDIA (IFFI), GOA
The Whale (2022) Movie Trailer
The Whale (2022) Movie Links – IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
The Whale (2022) Movie Cast – Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton