Director: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink
“Letting oneself go” is a loaded phrase. Typically it is used to chide someone for losing their physical prowess. For getting out of shape. For getting fat. The negative connotations of changing to a different body type. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) – a morbidly obese shut-in – would be said to have let himself go. Charlie was always big. But, in the aftermath of his partner Alan’s suicide, he has abused his own body with neglect and overeating, charting a course towards his own eventual end.
Here we find another, arguably more painful meaning in the phrase “letting oneself go”. Charlie’s eating disorder is triggered by his grief. In food he found comfort, an abyss to sink into. But within that abyss, consciously or not, he also found an escape plan. Charlie may have been working himself toward his own suicide for years. We meet him in what may turn out to be the last week of his life.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play, The Whale never particularly shakes off its own inherent staginess. Charlie’s dour apartment is our singular setting (adding a shade of comedy to the misleading opening shot). We may venture out onto the porch once or twice as the house lights transition, but this is a one-location deal, which is befitting of the character; physically depleted and ashamed of his own appearance.
Fraser – part-consumed in distracting prosthetics and plasticine CG enhancements – is everything you’ve heard he is as Charlie. It’s a prestige performance and one hell of a comeback considering his own career arc. But it – and The Whale – feel somewhat compromised by director Darren Aronofsky’s apparent aims in this regard. It’s a showy performance in an awards baiting chamber piece. A melodramatic overture that, in it’s final moments especially, almost laughably oversteps its bounds.*
More impressive is Hong Chau. Her work as Liz – Charlie’s friend and health care specialist – requires less bluster. She’s the most believable of the bunch, and The Whale cements what many of us have known for a decade or so now; put Chau in your movie and she’ll quietly take it from you.
Over the course of this eventful week, Charlie – fearing his own imminent heart failure – attempts to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink); a vile abomination of a 17-year-old who sees dollar signs in her estranged father’s demise. Complicating the mix is the bizarre appearance of religious teen Thomas (Ty Simpkins), whose invasive character arc only serves to enhance Charlie’s blinkered vision of his daughter as some genius-in–disguise.
Perception is a notable theme throughout here. Charlie works from home providing online coaching for essay writers. He’s a teacher (though he keeps his camera off). Frequently (some might say bluntly) he cries for honesty from his pupils, valuing a singular point of view over cold objectivity. When Ellie’s mother Mary (Samantha Morton) drops by for a histrionic second act, we are witness to two sides of a parenting coin. Mary – more familiar with Ellie’s antics – is weary and fearful of her daughter’s wickedness. Charlie, ever the optimist, sees only pluck and potential. The writing intends for us to land somewhere in the middle, encouraged to pick a side ourselves. What do we think?
Alas, much of The Whale is eager to tell us what to think. Fraser and Chau are great in their respective ways, but Hunter’s writing is bombastic. Heavy-handed metaphors chock-full of messages might’ve worked shouted from a moodily lit stage – that is part and parcel of theatre after all – but he’s evidently loathe to lose some of these and their appearance on film feels clumsy.
Aronofsky plays the whole like David Fincher doing a ’50s TV movie, and once again one gets the sense of a filmmaker entranced by misery. The film’s handling of obesity and the psychological minefields involved are generally good and insightful. The intentions for our empathy clear. But The Whale still ogles, and this feels like Aronofsky’s (unintended?) addition to the mixture. 23 years on from Requiem for a Dream and he still wants to shock us, but should we be shocked by Charlie? The approach feels slightly at odds with the text.
And yet as Oscar bait goes, this is more interesting than most, maybe even because of it’s contradictions and the boldness of its staging. Like or loathe Aronofsky (and it’s quite possible to do both), his cinema goes for the gut, so to speak. It asks something of us. The Whale may not be as full-throated as the likes of Requiem or mother! in its visual dexterity, but it continues this filmmaker’s commitment to provocation. And even if Aronofsky occasionally feels like Bytes in The Elephant Man prodding his curiosity with a stick, Fraser counters him with teary, soulful and, yes, sometimes ugly humanity.
*Babylon is presently getting a lot of flack for its big-swing finale, but I found the final moments of The Whale far more egregious, hey-ho.