You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. Those closest to the titular self-anointed “Whale” want what is best for him. “Go to a hospital” is the same line said repetitively throughout the near 2-hour runtime as with each passing moment, death creeps closer. The rebuttal every time, without a second thought to it is “No hospitals, I don’t have health insurance”. This is a man who is scared, who doesn’t want to be saved in his final week, coming to terms with his fate. Maybe he doesn’t deserve it for the selfish choices he’s made, or he feels like a burden for the pain and anger caused to everyone around him. For someone like this, in their last days, we’re made to feel sympathy for them but for someone depicted as grotesque and repulsive, the opposite effect takes over.
With each passing day that we’re with him, Charlie (Brendan Fraser) contemplates his health risk. It’s learned that Charlie lost a dear friend, and he couldn’t recover from the loss. A loss that turned Charlie into a binge eater, that got so out of control that when Charlie teaches his online writing class, his camera appears “broken” when in reality Charlie fears the brutal honesty from his students judgement. He knows every disgusting word they would say if his camera was on. But still Charlie eats an entire bucket of fried chicken after nearly going into cardiac arrest with his blood pressure reaching an astronomical height that would cause instant heart failure.
It’s a miracle that Charlie is able to move, let alone hoist himself up, walk and even shower. There are hand holds in each room to assist him.
For a brief moment, as Charlie googles congestive heart failure and his blood pressure number that was 238 over 134, director Darren Aronofsky utilizes shock value with his character, suggesting that Charlie’s condition can happen to anyone who is suffering – they will seek the same overindulgence in something harmful to the body. In the following moment, a kitchen drawer is opened to reveal a mountain of candy bars that Charlie takes out, unwarps and scarfs down in a couple of bites only to breathe when the three musketeers is swallowed whole.
It’s about this time that Charlie is truly irredeemable in his eyes in this deeply heartbreaking story. The loathsome act in which he’s reminded of by his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) is nothing compared to slowly killing himself with artificial sugars and greasy foods he consumes every night around the clock. For 2 hours, writer Samuel D. Hunter and director Aronofsky dehumanizes this poor man. He takes it from all sides. His one and only friend Liz (Hong Chau) who is also Charlie’s pro bono nurse begs him to go to a hospital but enables his binge eating by bringing Charlie two giant meatball subs every day. Charlies ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) never forgave Charlie for finding true love outside of their marriage and abandoning their daughter at a young age.
Watching Charlie self-destruct is like watching a car wreck. You want to look away, but you can’t, it’s almost impossible to rip your eyes away from the screen. Part of that is due to the abhorrent nature of the main character and majority of it is due to the outstanding performance by Brendan Fraser. Wearing an oversized fat suit, Fraser makes uncomfortable look downright awful. Any sympathy toward Charlie is invigorated by Fraser in his beautiful and humanized performance. Fraser could have easily become a caricature but brings a sense of sincerity to the role. It’s the best male performance of the year.
Based on the 2012 play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale boasts an intimate setting that a stage play would feature. Taking place in a single location, Charlie’s apartment, the small ensemble cast come in and out of Charlies unlocked front door, discussing their lives and playing savior to someone so far gone, counting down the inevitable hours Charlie has left as he attempts to reconcile with Ellie, who hates him. However, Charlie see’s past the anger, past the hate and rage, truly believing Ellie to be an amazing person.
Ellie is the one good thing Charlie accomplished in his life. And every day that she is in his home seething at him, he never stops his futile attempt to reconcile or convince her that she’s a good person.
The camera movements of cinematographer Matthew Libatique swivels through each room of the small 2-bedroom apartment with adaptations made to the bathroom, bedroom and living area that accommodate the 600-pound man. Going behind Charlie, Libatique captures the struggle a person the size of Charlie would have in talking and hearing someone who isn’t in his direct line of sight. It’s a brilliant use of the camera to put us in Charlie’s shoes. Sweat stains the shirts as he is forced to walk without the assistance of a walker in which he fails, knocking over an end table. Ellie, in her most heartless act openly mocks her father, taking a picture of the struggling man, with no sympathy in her face for the father who left her.
Looking at the screenplay, Hunter’s work is unrelenting in its mental abuse against Charlie. And despite the self-inflicted wounds that Charlie insists upon, the same screenplay is full of hope for humanity. There is not a single person who doesn’t deserve forgiveness, even those who commit vile acts against their own family. Charlie feels he doesn’t deserve forgiveness, that he’s beyond help – he refuses every attempt – even forcing others to be brutal in their view of him when pressed.
When the film opens, Charlie is teaching a class, the camera zooms in on the blacked-out screen of Charlie’s webcam. Here he encourages his students to be honest with their writing. Honesty is one of the most polarizing themes in The Whale. It’s characters are hypocrites – all dealing with personal demons they are too afraid to face – continuously lying to themselves when the truth is right there.
Another scene that stands out the most comes in the latter half. In ordering his daily 2 pizza pies, Charlie has worked a deal with the delivery man. The two a couple nights before having become close, exchanging names and even making small talk. In his lowest, Charlie is seen by Dan (Sathya Sridharan) and decides to eat everything in sight. Charlie loses all control, gluttonous for punishment, he decides to end it all. It isn’t until Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comes over that Charlie snaps out of his trance. As hard to watch as it is, Aronofsky constructs a powerful scene with Fraser leading the way. The disease takes a devastating toll on more than the person with the disorder. The few people that we meet also share the burden of the damage Charlie is putting his body though.
Getting into the fat suit, credit must be given to costume and makeup. What those two departments accomplished transforming Fraser into Charlie is remarkable, if it wasn’t for his familiar likeness, it would be a completely different person. Like Moby Dick that’s referenced throughout and used a coping mechanism, Aronofsky frames Charlie with a larger-than-life stature. He towers over Liz and everyone else as he stands up, struggling against his walker to slide his forward. Every time Carlie has to reach for something high, or on ground, the anxiety of how he will accomplish that task takes over, you can feel the anguish on Fraser’s face, the panic sets in and once he gives up, a sense of relief is felt.
Emotionally, The Whale is a rollercoaster – Aronofsky and Hunter overwhelm with dense emotional turmoil that will leave anyone in a puddle. Its words are like bullets, and its actions cut deep, and its performances are inspiring. Opposite Fraser is Sadie Sink, coming off an unforgettable performance in the latest season of Stranger Things. She’s fierce and brutal toward her father and Hunter’s script digs the knife deeper with their relationship that will illicit an emotional response in anyone who has been abandoned by a parent. Sink and Fraser are forces of nature who collide with one another, creating a relatable dysfunction.
The Whale is a fascinatingly depressing and frustrating tale that struggles to find its steady footing but is led by a powerfully poignant performance and a strong supporting cast. Hong Chau in the span of a few months delivers back-to-back solid stand out supporting roles to two talented leading roles. She even steals the spotlight with her raw monologue that deserves more attention because of her talent. The Whale will sure to be divisive boasting plenty of emotions and can find relatability with its complicated human nature. Its themes will sear themselves in the back of the mind, holding a staying power well beyond the films final frame.
Screenplay By: Samuel D. Hunter
Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Music By: Rob Simonsen
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Release Date: December 9, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 57 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
Based On: The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter