Darren Aronofsky is known for edgy, innovative films like Requiem for a Dream and mother!. Even his Biblical epic Noah was offbeat enough that it generated controversy. For that reason, it's surprising to see him tackle a story as traditional as the one in The Whale. Aside from shooting in the square "Academy” aspect ratio to heighten the claustrophobic feel of its single setting, Aronofsky sheds himself of the visual techniques that have helped define his career thus far. Perhaps predictably, this isn't his best film. It does, however, have enough going for it to be worth catching.
Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, a morbidly obese man trapped in his cramped apartment due to his weight and related immobility. He works as an online English professor, keeping his camera turned off so the students will not see his poor physical condition. After suffering severe chest pains, his personal nurse Liz (The Menu's Hong Chau) informs him that he's got congenital heart failure and will certainly die within the week if he doesn't seek immediate medical attention. Charlie declines.
Two other people come to visit him. One is a Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who believes God has led him to Charlie's door after seeing his appearance. The other is his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). She has decided to show up and air all her grievances toward him, not the least of which is abandoning her and her mother for one of his male students years ago. Charlie wants to get to know her now that she's here, so he offers to help with a high school English assignment, as well as pay her for the company.
What happens next is not entirely surprising. Of course Thomas has a secret, and of course Ellie's tough exterior hides real vulnerabilities. If you guessed Ellie and Charlie at least begin the process of healing, you're not too far off. And with a Christian missionary character, yes, The Whale delves into some heavy-handed themes pertaining to divine intervention, the afterlife, and the like. Not much is particularly new or dazzling, although the fairly standard story, based on Samuel D. Hunter's play, is executed with enough skill to remain engrossing. Even the semi-manipulative execution of the plot's revelations don't completely wreck the drama.
Where the picture excels is in its depiction of obesity. Charlie probably weights at least 500 pounds. He can't walk without support, his breathing is labored, and he relies on other people to do things for him. When he drops his phone on the floor, for example, he has to ask someone else to pick it up, since bending over is impossible. The Whale builds empathy for Charlie and people like him, showing in unsparing detail the issues they face. At one point, the character explains his weight to Ellie by saying he "just let it get out of control." That simple line goes a long way toward suggesting the depression he feels from his situation.
Much has been made of Brendan Fraser's "comeback performance," and it is indeed very good. Buried inside a costume designed to make him look obese, he conveys the sense of a life that has gone irreparably off-course. There's a heartbreaking quality to his work, especially since Charlie seems intent on putting himself out of his misery. Through Fraser's efforts, it becomes clear that the character desperately wants to fix anything in his life before checking out. The actor shares multiple strong scenes with Sadie Sink, who helps us understand how Ellie's extreme bitterness combines with a desire to connect with her father that she doesn't fully understand. Samantha Morton shows up for one scene as Ellie's mom, elevating the whole movie with her forceful turn.
The Whale lays it on thick with its themes and Moby Dick references. This is not a subtle film. Superior work from the cast, Fraser in particular, proves enough to make that lack of subtlety overlook-able. Aronofsky ensures Charlie's story relays an affecting message, namely that people can be cruel and flawed and frustrating, yet they can never fully deny the inherent decency inside.
out of four
The Whale is rated R for language, some drug use, and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.