The Whale is a high gravity movie that asks a lot of its audience and demands even more from its actors. Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) offers a film version of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 stage drama of the same name while making a clear commitment to the original play's theatricality. The film’s cramped set closely resembles an intimate stage space. The execution of the script is fraught with emotion and the ardor of the story feels surprisingly tangible. These are bold directorial choices, and your enjoyment of the film totally depends on your willingness to buy into the strategy.
If you accept that contract, be prepared to get in your feels! Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) gives the performance of a lifetime as Charlie. And I realize how cliché that sounds. However, if you consider the personal struggles that Fraser has endured since his days as Rick O’Connell, I think you’ll agree. Fraser bears a disproportionate amount of the film’s figurative and literal weight by playing Charlie and his passion for the role really shines.
Charlie is a middle-aged, morbidly obese man that teaches college English when he’s not inhaling buckets of fried chicken, gorging himself on a meat lover's pizza, or guzzling Pepsi by the liter. (None of that sounded quite so mean in my head.) The bottom line is that this guy is in a prison of his own making, but Fraser’s ability to portray his misery so earnestly forces you to reluctantly sympathize with him. However, at any given moment you’re just as likely to wag your finger at Charlie or flat out reject his outlook on life. This director-induced moral vacillation really challenges your sense of humanity. And while that makes The Whale a difficult film to get through at times, it’s worthwhile engagement.
And the key supporting players around Charlie fuel that engagement. Charlie's only meaningful connection is his in-home nurse, Liz (Hong Chau, The Menu). Liz is a well-rounded and sympathetic character who plays an important role in the movie’s exploration of themes of compassion and empathy. However, she is a bit frustrating because she is constantly equivocating between being a caregiver and an enabler. (Liz, this man does not need a philly cheesesteak, let alone two!) Jokes aside, her performance is actually a clever use of the character because it shows the nuance that is required to care for somebody that is essentially too far gone to save, physically at least.
Charlie’s daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, Stranger Things), leaves no doubt where she stands, however. She hates Charlie’s guts (which is saying a lot because he has 600 lbs worth of them). Sink really leans into this role, and while her performance is a bit over the top at times she plays the part well. Charlie abandoned Ellie as child for reasons that Aronofsky clearly lays out by the end of the movie, and she’s understandably bitter. And that bitterness manifests itself as bad behavior and underachievement: character traits that Charlie desperately wants to fix before it’s too late. The chemistry between Fraser and Sink could be better, but it is effective enough to get you thinking about the bigger picture.
And then, there is Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Where’s Rose). Thomas is a young Christian missionary that cultivates an awkward friendship with Charlie. Their initial meeting is a moment that I can only describe as mortifying. And every subsequent interaction they have seems unnecessarily contentious. Thomas’ struggle to reconcile his religious beliefs with Charlie's “unconventional” lifestyle exacerbates that tension and makes him hard to like. However, Thomas’ role as an obvious foil to Charlie gives the audience a chance to engage in some complex analysis of how dogma can clash with notions of personal freedom.
Overall, Aronofsky brilliantly uses the cast of The Whale to explore themes of isolation, redemption, and struggle. Charlie’s struggle to find some semblance of purpose and meaning from a life that he feels he wasted is poignant. Moreover, while watching Brendan Fraser sweat and heave like a Clydesdale for 109 minutes in pitiful solitude is emotionally exhausting and mentally draining, it actually feels like necessary torture to truly understand Charlie’s plight and endeavor to make amends. This movie is going to win at least one Oscar for sure, so give it a chance. Just steel yourself ahead of time!
The Whale is currently streaming on most major platforms.