The tragedy and wonder of movies is that it’s not just what they’re about that matters, it’s How they’re about what they’re about. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale—playing in competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival—Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a man who has given up on life, which in turn affects how and what he eats. Takeout pizza is his only option. He finds refuge in messy, messy sandwiches, as well as buckets full of fried chicken. He has drawers full of candy bars that he dips into while he’s grading papers—he’s a writing instructor who teaches exclusively online, with his camera off so his students can’t see him. This is because Charlie is undeniably obese: he can’t get around without a walker or wheelchair, and getting into and out of bed would be impossible without a ceiling-mounted pull-up bar. He doesn’t even leave the home for medical treatment. He has no insurance, so he relies on his closest—and only—friend, Liz (Hong Chau, in a bright, bracing performance), who is, luckily, a nurse, and who also has a knack for stopping by at just the right moment. On one such visit, after Charlie has suffered a kind of seizure, she takes his blood pressure: it’s 238 over 134. She urges him to go to the hospital; he refuses, claiming that he doesn’t have the money.
This is a story about a person in deep pain—which is to say its impulses are honorable. (It’s adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter.) And the film is at times incredibly moving, thanks to Fraser’s refined, mournful performance. To play this role, Fraser donned a large-sized fatsuit. This has prompted some online criticism. This movie is about a man in extreme circumstances. To read it as an example of body acceptance would miss the point. It’s a drama about how grief can twist our lives out of control, a story that urges sympathy for its main character. Both these goals are good and noble.
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But that doesn’t make The WhaleA great film, and even one of the best. Aronofsky, like many directors, incites fierce defensiveness and derision among others. But almost everyone is neutral around him. He directed the crazytown horror film in 2017 that was a nightmare for his wife. Mother!It was for some an inhumane, pointless spectacle while others saw it as a warning about the cruelty of creativity. His 2010 tale of nutso-ballerinas Black SwanIt was either an absurd work of dorkiness, impossible to be taken seriously, or it was a warning about the cruelty of creativity. Do you see a pattern in this?
The Whale at least, is a different kind of film for Aronofsky, who has managed to pry the camera’s gaze away from his own navel. Even so, there’s plenty of look-at-me bravado in the excessive dreariness of his approach. Shot by his frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique, the movie has a dank, used-dishwater look—to represent Charlie’s despair, the total lack of light in his life, of course. Charlie’s body is often constrained by the frame, just to make sure we really, really get how restricted his life is. When you hear somber, flutey music on the soundtrack, don’t be surprised if the needle on your pathos detector is swerves far into the red. There are also times when Aronofsky leans in a little too heavily on the sweat stains, front and back, that streak Charlie’s T-shirts, or the greasiness around his lips as he tears into his food. Aronofsky is balancing compassion with exploitation. He can be a good person, but he sometimes crosses that line.
Sadie Sinks into ‘The Whale’
Niko Tavernise—Palouse Rights LLC.
But sometimes an actor can help minimize a director’s shortcomings, and that’s what Fraser does here. Charlie is kind, thoughtful, and compassionate, but he has also been affected by his grief. He was married once, and the story’s dramatic stakes shoot sky-high when his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), shows up. She hasn’t done so unbidden—Charlie hasn’t seen her in years, and he has longed to be in touch with her. But he left her and her mother (played by an uncharacteristically tinny, pinched-looking Samantha Morton) when Ellie was just eight, and neither have forgiven him—especially because he left them for a man, the love of his life, who has since died.
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Another character, a fresh-faced door-to-door missionary played by Ty Simpkins, has a tenuous connection to the circumstances that caused the death of Charlie’s partner. All of these people converge on Charlie’s cramped apartment just as he’s enduring—or hanging onto—his last days of life. Charlie’s grief, and what he sees as the mistakes he’s made in his life, have filled him with anxiety and guilt, and the only way he can cope with those feelings is to eat his way through them, even past the point where he knows his excessive weight is killing him. His compulsion is a kind of suicide pact he’s made with himself, and he’s locked in a tricky cycle: his increasing weight seems to have made him more depressed and less able to cope, a condition he self-medicates by eating. (The movie’s title is a reference to Moby Dick Charlie is a fan of the essay subject and will return to it again and again in comfort.
The point of Fraser’s performance, though, is to see the PersonAs opposed to only the body. As Ellie’s mother rightly points out, Ellie is a terrible teenager. However, her father views her intelligence as well as honesty. He keeps using the adjective “amazing” to describe her, and the more he uses it, the more we almost believe it, though her behavior keeps reinforcing our initial impression. At one point she demands that her father stand up and walk to her unassisted, a seemingly simple task that’s completely beyond him—it’s horrifying when he barrels to the floor.
Charlie is a bit of a pushover, too eager to see the good in others even as he’s unable to acknowledge his own sterling qualities. Early in the film, Liz tells Charlie he’ll die of congestive heart failure within days if he doesn’t seek treatment, which he of course refuses to do. The mechanics of this story demand that others must be redeemed, even if it’s too late for Charlie to save himself. You can predict the essence of the film’s ending, if not its specifics, very early on.
But Fraser—always a wonderful actor, and one who hasn’t had the career he deserves—defies the predictability of the movie’s arc. He shows us Charlie’s self-pity, and AllowThis can make it annoying. This guy can be a nuisance in so many different ways. His self-destruction and self-centeredness are at least partially intertwined. Fraser doesn’t just give us permission to feel exasperation for this character; he guides us right to those feelings.
And yet to look into his eyes is to see a person who’s willing himself to die, even as he wishes he had the will to live. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this flawed film, which grooves too self-indulgently on its own gloomy vibe, and not wish you could reach out to Charlie, to find the right thing to say, to help without rendering judgment. You almost feel like Charlie is soothing us with his kind words. But really, that’s Fraser at work, not telling us what To feel, but reassuring us that it’s OK to feel.
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