Darren Aronofsky has never been a director that shies away from dark or shocking subject matter. From his debut feature Pi, to follow-up Requiem for a Dream, Oscar-winning Black Swan, love-it-or-hate-it mother!, and everything in-between, he consistently confronts audiences with sometimes brutal examinations of deep themes like religion, human nature, and our capacity for self-inflicted suffering. The Whale, written by Samuel D. Hunter and based on his play, is chock full of these themes, even if it is somewhat subdued in its exhibition of them in comparison to Aronofsky’s previous work.
The Whale is anchored by an incredible performance by Brendan Fraser as Charlie, who teaches English online with his webcam turned off to hide his nearly 600-pound frame from his students. As we first meet him he is panicking due to severe chest pains and drops his cell phone out of reach. At just that moment, a missionary from the New Life Church named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) arrives at his unlocked door and helps to calm him down. Charlie refuses to call an ambulance and instead summons his friend Liz (Hong Chau), who is a nurse. She tries to get him to go to a hospital, insisting that he is likely suffering from congestive heart failure, but he continues to shoot her down, worrying over how he would pay the bill.
Becoming convinced that he doesn’t have much time left on Earth, he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) to try and reconnect. She is still angry with him for having abandoned her and her mother Mary (Samantha Morton) when she was only 8. But after being offered money and help rewriting an essay to avoid flunking out of school, she reluctantly agrees to spend time with him, and he does what he can to learn about her and her life in the hopes of ensuring that she will find happiness as she gets older. All while Liz objects to the idea out of concern for Charlie’s health and Thomas continues to visit in hopes of saving Charlie’s soul.
Taking place entirely in Charlie’s apartment, the stage roots of the movie are very obvious, with it sometimes even feeling like you are watching a literal filmed version of a Broadway production. It would be a very good one though, so that’s never a problem. Aronofsky orchestrates the proceedings perfectly and elicits excellent work from the entire cast, but particularly Fraser, who is able to deliver a surprisingly nuanced performance through the layers of impressive makeup. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s slowly moving camera adds the right amount of tension to scenes of Charlie dooming himself through his behavior, and Rob Simonsen’s striking score further heightens the heavy emotions running through most of the movie. As with Requiem for a Dream, the experience of watching someone destroy themselves isn’t the most pleasant one, but unlike that film, there are moments of beauty and at least a little bit of room for hope at the end of this one. It’s an often-harrowing watch, but well worth the time as this little movie adroitly tackles some big topics and allows one of our most undersung actors to really prove his skill with a stunning, heartbreaking performance. ★★★★★
rated r for language, some drug use, and sexual content.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor