2020s

TIFF Review: Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Whale’

Nobody can accuse Darren Aronofsky of being subtle. Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play, The Whale might be the American filmmaker’s most earnestly melodramatic, wear-everything-on-its-sleeve movie. Its depiction of fatness, homosexuality, Christianity, marriage, familial relationships and educational dynamics are all laid bare in what can only be described as a massive unheard cry from the lonely Charlie (Brendan Fraser). He is a 600-pound man, barely able to walk, barely able to breath, and fully on display throughout the entire film. As with any Aronofsky protagonist, Charlie’s corporeal form is his humanity — a source of pain and comfort — and the ultimate goal is to transcend it.

The Whale addresses the topic of obesity in a very frank, if not invasive and overbearing manner. Aronofsky considers a body affliction as something that can be empathized with or at least understood through the parading of it as a circus show. It’s a common complaint of his cinema that the ideas of addiction, mutilation and obsession are not topics for introspection but for pure exhibition. Aronofsky wants people to bear witness to the malformed suffering and torture his characters physically undergo. It’s a manner in which the director seeks to desensitize the viewer’s natural reactions of disgust at things socially conditioned to be horrific. This doesn’t always play as tasteful, however.

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In Requiem for a Dream (2000), psychotic breakdowns and deeply humiliating sexual acts for drugs purposefully put characters in front of gawking onlookers as a mechanism of sympathy. Likewise in The Whale, Charlie’s body is constantly on the precipice of “being discovered.” He is a professor who teaches online English courses for college students. Charlie keeps his camera off, lying to his students that it doesn’t work. He tells a delivery guy — who brings two large pizzas every night — to just leave the food at the door and take the tip from the mailbox. Charlie is shaken at being discovered by Todd, a young man going door-to-door to talk to people about Jesus on behalf of a religious group called New Life. 

When Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) finally comes to visit him, she is cruel and verbally antagonistic. The teenager finds any reason to make her father feel like a terrible person.  Each character in The Whale reacts to Charlie’s obesity differently. There is pure disgust (Ellie), patronizing sympathy (Ty Simpkins as Thomas), friendship through guilt (Hong Chau as Liz) and distant regret (Samantha Morton as Mary). None of the aforementioned characters are willing to accept their own realities. They’re all hiding from something, and they use Charlie as a means to experience their own personal catharsis.

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This is an interesting play on the typical Aronofsky character arc in The Whale, spurred by the source play’s narrative that the director does everything to make his own. Usually Aronofsky’s characters are isolated, in addition to being lonely sufferers. In The Whale, however, Charlie is constantly being visited by people. Unfortunately, they’re all individuals who try to use him as a method of fixing themselves. Even Liz, who is the kindest and most considerate, only sticks around because of guilt (her late brother was Charlie’s ex-lover and former student). She buys food for the protagonist and watches him slowly get sicker and sicker. Liz knows that Charlie is going to die because of his obesity.

Aronofsky considers body afflictions as a necessary tool towards catharsis. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Andrew Weisblum’s editing in The Whale do everything to make viewers feel the thudding weight of Charlie’s body and the claustrophobia he feels within himself because of it. Every time Fraser’s character sits, it’s like the frame rattles. Every time he gets up, the music crescendos to something horrible, like a monster awakening from the depths. All of these grandiose theatrics are a way to paint Charlie as an empathetic figure, but it feels maudlin.

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Fraser’s much-talked-about performance in The Whale lives up to the hype. He builds a perfect contrast with his hulking movements and solicitous demeanor to those around him. Charlie’s eyes widen every time he speaks of his daughter, and his voice trembles with sadness when he sees how much she hates him. Fraser keeps Charlie’s fully formed humanity at the forefront of The Whale, despite various filmmaking decisions that could flatten his character into a saccharine pity case.

When Charlie feels like his heart might give out, he recites an essay about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). He wants it to be the last thing he hears before death. Like the Euclid stock prediction that Sean Gullette’s Max recites during his cluster headaches in Pi (1998), Charlie’s essay in The Whale is the key to transcendence. Similarly, the last line of Robert Siegel’s script for The Wrestler (2008) — Aronofsky’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker — reads “freeze on Randy mid-air, glorious and immortal.” It’s an ending that the director uses time and time again for all his characters. Charlie’s body is a physical manifestation of all the grief that he has suffered. It’s there for him to escape from, for him to shed, and it’s achievable only through death. That’s a cynical concept, and while it feels perfect in The Wrestler, it feels out of place or forced in The Whale.

Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.

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