Darren Aronofsky is not a filmmaker necessarily known for subtlety or a delicate touch. He will pummel you with theme and messaging without a moment’s notice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but rather a stylistic and instinctual choice on Aronofsky’s part. But when it comes to The Whale, it can be questioned whether his instincts clash with the material, and while it’s possibly Aronofsky at his most restrained filmmaking-wise, there’s a particular kind of tastelessness to the film. And yet, despite that, or perhaps because of it, it is maybe one of his most fascinatingly empathetic works, a piece oddly in touch with the humanity of its subject, even in its distasteful elements.
Adapted from the play of the same name, the film follows Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese and reclusive English teacher, who, as the film opens, begins to feel a severe pain in his chest, only to be helped by a door knocking missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins). His best friend, Liz (Hong Chau), who is also a nurse, explains to him that he is experiencing heart failure, and if he doesn’t go to the hospital, he will be dead by the weekend, however, Charlie refuses, continuing to eat. With his mortality on the clock, Charlie sets about trying to reconnect with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he has been estranged from for almost 9 years.
The Whale is an inherently complex beast. Maybe not so much in its messaging of self-destruction, Aronofsky’s filmmaking instincts definitely don’t let that by, but rather in the way it chooses to explore that self-destruction and broken humanity through the lens of not just a man on the verge of death from obesity, but also through the various interweaving characters. This family of people broken by life and love are put through the emotional ringer, just as you are as a spectator to this single-location drama. It’s an emotionally taxing film, as Aronofsky is known to craft, that is unrelenting in its onslaught of physical and psychological struggles between all the characters. In this sense, it’s exhausting, brutal and unforgiving as it interrogates and reveals the various dominos that lead to this week.
Where Aronofsky’s direction is known to go a little bit wilder, particularly with the camera and editing (along with long-time collaborators, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Andrew Weisblum), Aronofsky keeps the film firmly planted and simple. In some senses, a question of the medium comes across in a play-to-screen adaptation, especially a single location drama, where there is the wonder of what cinematic language provides for a play, and whether it is ultimately a filmed version of said play. Aronofsky taking the restrained route, an interesting turn for him as a filmmaker, but not necessarily the most interesting turn for adaptation. The film looks stunning in its cold and calculated style, yet the way it plays out still lends itself to a stage rather than a screen.
The most indulgence it ever gets is when Charlie eats, a grotesque display that feels more classical Aronofsky in ways. It’s in the depiction of obesity that tastelessness begins to come through, a juxtaposition of Aronofsky’s instincts and the empathetic hand that this story requires feels like it should be at odds, the story, obviously is a hard one to really depict in a tasteful manner, morbid obesity is of course complicated to depict, due to this complex stigma and general fatphobia. There’s a degree to which Aronofsky realises this and leans into the tastelessness of the depiction, it’s grotesque at times, unnerving and repulsive, watching Charlie chow down on another chicken wing. But this only furthers the discomfort in its depiction of self-destruction. It’s not only the way he depicts these moments visually but psychologically understanding Charlie in these moments.
Samuel D. Hunter, in adapting his own play from stage to screen, is of course very well tapped into the empathy of his work, and much of the film’s power does come from Hunter’s insight into these complex characters. It’s an exceptionally well-written play, and subsequently, the film is too. Hunter’s sense of humanity and empathy for this complex family feels rich. It’s got the talkiness of a play, of course, it’s a dialogue-heavy piece, but Hunter’s writing is curious, engaging and layered in all the ways you’d want them to be.
As is often the case with play adaptations, the film feels like an actors showcase, and an actors showcase it is. Simpkins is excellent, playing an all too persistent missionary, a character that should be easy to dismiss or even hate, but Simpkins plays Thomas so well. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton appears for her second incredible one-scene performance of this awards season, breaking down the emotional drudgeries of this families while Mary falls back on her own coping mechanisms, Morton does it with such ease and delicacy. But of course, the show is stolen by Chau, Sink and Fraser. Chau’s layered empathy and humanity shine through, from frame one she appears on screen, she gives a performance so overwhelmingly sympathetic. Sink, on the other hand, finds the complex humanity in a character like Ellie, who rebels against the world around her, yet Sink finds something so understandable throughout that as the story continues, it becomes easier to see what Charlie sees in her.
Fraser gives the kind of performance that can be often mocked, as the film goes on, it becomes a bigger, more grandiose performance, but Fraser never loses sight of the heart and humanity contained within. He plays Charlie with so much compassion, and really is the key to making this film work, a performance that truly understands the character to the bones. It’s a transformative and layered performance that few actors ever grasp in the way Fraser does, and it feels like true acting magic.
Ultimately, The Whale explores self-destruction and self-struggle with such a deft sense of empathy and honesty, that for all the issues that the story could have, and the way in which Aronofsky explores it, it finds a profound power within it. It’s an exhausting film, unrelenting on the emotions, crushing as it is genuine, and ultimately feels like a fascinating turn for Aronofsky’s filmography. Some of his usual frustrations with the world are still here, yet there’s less cynicism to go with it. It’s a complex film, difficult and confronting, but worth the emotional toil it puts you through.
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