"The Whale" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
The main character in Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale" is obsessed with an essay written by his daughter when she was younger. The same character, who is named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), is also over 600 pounds and is living as a recluse, cutting off all ties to the world besides his bedside nurse Liz (Hong Chau) and an English class he teaches online, while leaving his camera off the entire time. The reason he is obsessed with the essay is because it is brutally honest, which is very similar to the tale Aronofsky unfolds on the screen. While it is jam-packed with those moments of unflinching honesty, it starts to come across as mean-spirited and obsessive at times, relying on the minor characters' judgements of Charlie to move the film along. Perhaps the biggest thing that saves this movie (pun intended) is Fraser's career changing role, making this feel like an excellent performance and character put into a mere mediocre film.
The movie opens with Charlie masturbating to gay porn, when he starts to have a medical emergency. Thinking he is dying, he allows a young man to come into his apartment, who turns out to be a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). The young man starts to make frequent visits to Charlie's apartment throughout the film, hoping he can "save" the obese man before his eventual death. When Charlie learns that his medical conditions are getting worse due to his weight and obsessive eating disorder, he knows his time is coming up on this Earth, leading him to reach out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
From the get-go, Ellie makes it perfectly clear to her father that she wants nothing to do with him, angry that he left her and her mom at such a young age. However, Charlie convinces her to stay by bribing her, telling her he'll do her essays for her and leave her all his money, which is around $120,000. She decides to stay, but only to reap the benefits that comes with spending time with her father. However, all the acts leading up to end of the film begs the existential question of whether or not it is possible for a human being to not care about others.
Aronofsky is known for crafting films centered around the terror of real-world problems. "Requiem for a Dream" tackled the effects drug use has on people of all ages. "Black Swan" tackles the wicked illusions an obsessive woman has about being the best ballerina to ever live. In similar fashion, he tries to create that same feeling and theme in this movie, trying to use Charlie's weight and medical conditions in the same sense as someone dealing with drug addiction and hysteria. While it could fall in the line of drug addiction, I don't think his common thriller aspect works in a film like this. In a movie that is jam-packed full of unsettling shots and intensifying music, it simply doesn't work well with the subject matter of the screenplay.
In regards to the screenplay in question, I think it sets up a very evenly-paced film that can tell a compelling story. Yet the screenwriter, Samuel D. Hunter, adds in dialogue and characters that make the film feel claustrophobic. The movie is a constant barrage of hate and insults being hurled at Charlie, with the characters never letting up or showing any remorse for their actions. Now, this is fine as the filmmakers want to show what Charlie goes through in his everyday life if he did reveal himself to the world. They paint him as a monster of sorts, similar to that of the T-Rex in "Jurassic Park" or Bruce the Shark in "Jaws". But, towards the ending moments of the film, they try to redeem the characters that, in my opinion, are too far from being redeemed.
Let's look at the character of Ellie for instance. Sink does an incredible job of playing her, and even after watching her breakout role in "Stranger Things", she is able to make me hate her in this movie. I don't think she did anything wrong here, which can be said for the rest of the actors present in this movie. But it is how she is written is the problem. She is cruel, despicable, and makes it well known to whoever will listen that she can't wait for her father to just go ahead and die already. Hell, she even slips him sleeping pills in one part of the movie so she can smoke weed in his house and be unbothered. Yet, as the film gets into the final moments, they want the viewer to feel sympathy and emphasize with this character. We understand the character feels how she feels, but it is a little too far gone to feel bad for this character and what she has done throughout the movie.
Like I mentioned earlier, this movie starts to become obsessed with seeing how far they can push the boundaries and show the hatred that the characters have for Charlie. In a way, it makes me wonder if Hunter hates Charlie himself due to the way he wrote this script. In a way, it starts to become redundant after a while, having characters, both new and old, come in and barrage him with hateful comments about his appearance or his unwillingness to go to a hospital. After a while, you're ready for it to stop and move on. It tries, it certainly does, to show that Charlie has a happy ending when this is all said and done, but it is much harder to believe than see.
Without a doubt, the best thing about this whole film is Fraser's role, who gives perhaps the best performance in his career. When watching this movie, you don't see Fraser, but rather Charlie. He is such a lovable actor and person in real life, so it's amazing he is able to shed that persona everyone knows him for and really embody this character that is far from who Fraser actually is as a person. It has been a while since we have truly seen Fraser act, and I applaud him for what he was able to do with this role and give such a fantastic performance. He is more than deserving for every accolade and award he has won so far, and will even go on to win in the future.
This movie has its problems, and it is hard to watch from beginning to end. It is definitely not for everyone or the faint of heart, but there is something about Fraser's performance here that makes it irresistible to watch. Will I ever watch this again? Probably not anytime soon, but I may view this picture one or two more times to appreciate everything Fraser did with this film. I wish there were certain things that Aronofsky changed as a whole, but as a film, I appreciate that it brought Fraser back to do what he loves.