Despite heart-wrenching performances, Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale sends mixed messages about its central character. The result may carry plenty of emotional punch, but leaves the audience wondering what the point of it all was.
Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, a 600-pound reclusive English teacher for an online college. He doesn’t leave his apartment and is suffering from numerous health issues related to his weight. Charlie, believing the worst, reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) at a chance at redemption for his past failures.
Charlie’s only regular visitor is his best friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who takes care of his health needs. As Charlie begins to bribe Ellie for her visits, the sudden arrival of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a door-to-door missionary, the situation grows more complicated. With Charlies health continuing to falter, time begins to run out to make the one good thing in his life worthwhile.
I have little doubt Aronofsky didn’t make this film with the intention to be a provocateur, but it almost feels like that’s what wants. Charlie is seen with human empathy for his personality and soul, but is stripped entirely of empathy with his body. There is nothing left to the imagination in regards to Charlie’s body. The levels of which his obesity is depicted is never with grace or modesty; it’s with the fascination of someone watching an animal at the zoo. The people in the room might have some sort of softer feelings towards Charlie, but the audience is never allowed that same courtesy.
The entire message of the film is unclear when the film is over. At no point during the nearly two-hour runtime is Charlie anything other than sweet, pleasant, and sunnily optimistic about every situation (not involving himself). This runs counter to how the people in his life react to him. Charlie’s entire adult life has been shut away from his estranged family, but he loves them with a fierce power. Where was this power before the single week the film depicts? It turns into a story of convenience for the sake of the film instead of a story that naturally grew to this point.
Fraser’s performance is powerful, but it’s a performance of tricks. He very effectively embodies the atmosphere Aronofsky wants to project, but his two modes are quiet sweetness, or shouty exclamation. There is no in-between with Charlie. Fraser does do a lot of quality work with his eyes, and embodies the necessary physicality with a strong commitment to the role.
Chau is heartbreakingly perfect. Liz is simultaneously bound to help a person in need, but also recognizes the path Charlie is taking. She is forced to balance maintaining Charlie’s well-being and giving in to his desires. Their relationship is built on trust and understanding, but when that trust is broken, Chau’s face sinks to such depths, you can’t help but feel affected. Sink has a much trickier performance. Ellie is by all accounts a terrible person. But the film is so insistent that she has morality, the cracks begin to show. Critics often speak about brave performances, but Sink is completely willing to play the “bad guy” in the story, while Charlie refuses to see her as such. I loved what Sink did with the character.
Simpkins doesn’t get away so easily, as Thomas is more of a plot device than an actual character. Thomas seems like a nice enough kid, but as the film progresses, his true purpose continues to be muddled until a late-film reveal. Simpkins doesn’t do much with the character, and it really hurts the film. Samantha Morton pops in for an extended cameo as Charlie’s ex-wife. The actress blows the doors off the place, but it only makes you long for her to be in the film longer.
Aronofsky keeps the action contained to Charlie’s apartment, which should feel more claustrophobic. Luckily, the world is presented as one that Charlie is more than able to explore, but is unwilling to do so. Occasional flashbacks are meant to enlighten the story, but they feel too out of place to add any depth to the story. There is an exceptional film in here somewhere, but it’s not in this version.
Despite the exceptional actors, The Whale is too muddled and misjudged to land effectively. Some will love it, some will despise it. I landed somewhere in the middle.
The Whale is now playing in theaters