The tragedy and wonder of movies is that it’s not just what they’re about that matters, it’s how they’re about what they’re about. In Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale—playing in competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival—Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a man who has given up on life, which in turn affects how and what he eats. He gets takeout pizza every night, and finds solace in big, messy sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken. He has drawers full of candy bars that he dips into while he’s grading papers—he’s a writing instructor who teaches exclusively online, with his camera off so his students can’t see him. This is because Charlie is undeniably obese: he can’t get around without a walker or wheelchair, and getting into and out of bed would be impossible without a ceiling-mounted pull-up bar. In fact, he never leaves the house, not even for medical care. He has no insurance, so he relies on his closest—and only—friend, Liz (Hong Chau, in a bright, bracing performance), who is, luckily, a nurse, and who also has a knack for stopping by at just the right moment. On one such visit, after Charlie has suffered a kind of seizure, she takes his blood pressure: it’s 238 over 134. She urges him to go to the hospital; he refuses, claiming that he doesn’t have the money.
This is a story about a person in deep pain—which is to say its impulses are honorable. (It’s adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter.) And the film is at times incredibly moving, thanks to Fraser’s refined, mournful performance. Fraser wore a fatsuit to play the role, which has occasioned some critical online chatter. But for better or worse, this is a movie about a man who finds himself in an extreme situation, and to read it as a body-acceptance parable would be missing the point. It’s a drama about how grief can twist our lives out of control, a story that urges sympathy for its main character. Both of those aims are noble and decent.
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But that doesn’t make The Whale a great movie, or even a particularly good one. Aronofsky is one of those directors who incites fierce defensiveness in some and outright derision in others, but almost no one is neutral about him. His last film, the 2017 crazytown terrorized-wife fantasy Mother! was to some a tortured, pointless spectacle, to others a cautionary tale about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. His 2010 nutso-ballerina saga Black Swan was either a work of spangled dorkiness that was impossible to take seriously, or a cautionary tale about the potential cruelty of the creative impulse. Are you seeing a pattern here?
The Whale, at least, is a different kind of film for Aronofsky, who has managed to pry the camera’s gaze away from his own navel. Even so, there’s plenty of look-at-me bravado in the excessive dreariness of his approach. Shot by his frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique, the movie has a dank, used-dishwater look—to represent Charlie’s despair, the total lack of light in his life, of course. Charlie’s body is often constrained by the frame, just to make sure we really, really get how restricted his life is. When you hear somber, flutey music on the soundtrack, don’t be surprised if the needle on your pathos detector is swerves far into the red. There are also times when Aronofsky leans in a little too heavily on the sweat stains, front and back, that streak Charlie’s T-shirts, or the greasiness around his lips as he tears into his food. Aronosfky is walking a fine line between compassion and exploitation here. Even if he means well, he still tips over that line now and then.
But sometimes an actor can help minimize a director’s shortcomings, and that’s what Fraser does here. Charlie is an extremely kind, smart, sensitive person who has been undone by grief. He was married once, and the story’s dramatic stakes shoot sky-high when his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), shows up. She hasn’t done so unbidden—Charlie hasn’t seen her in years, and he has longed to be in touch with her. But he left her and her mother (played by an uncharacteristically tinny, pinched-looking Samantha Morton) when Ellie was just eight, and neither have forgiven him—especially because he left them for a man, the love of his life, who has since died.
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Another character, a fresh-faced door-to-door missionary played by Ty Simpkins, has a tenuous connection to the circumstances that caused the death of Charlie’s partner. All of these people converge on Charlie’s cramped apartment just as he’s enduring—or hanging onto—his last days of life. Charlie’s grief, and what he sees as the mistakes he’s made in his life, have filled him with anxiety and guilt, and the only way he can cope with those feelings is to eat his way through them, even past the point where he knows his excessive weight is killing him. His compulsion is a kind of suicide pact he’s made with himself, and he’s locked in a tricky cycle: his increasing weight seems to have made him more depressed and less able to cope, a condition he self-medicates by eating. (The movie’s title is a reference to Moby Dick, the subject of an essay Charlie loves and returns to again and again for comfort.)
The point of Fraser’s performance, though, is to see the person as opposed to just the body. Ellie is, as her mother correctly notes at one point, a truly awful teenager, though her father sees only her intelligence and honesty. He keeps using the adjective “amazing” to describe her, and the more he uses it, the more we almost believe it, though her behavior keeps reinforcing our initial impression. At one point she demands that her father stand up and walk to her unassisted, a seemingly simple task that’s completely beyond him—it’s horrifying when he barrels to the floor.
Charlie is a bit of a pushover, too eager to see the good in others even as he’s unable to acknowledge his own sterling qualities. Early in the film, Liz tells Charlie he’ll die of congestive heart failure within days if he doesn’t seek treatment, which he of course refuses to do. The mechanics of this story demand that others must be redeemed, even if it’s too late for Charlie to save himself. You can predict the essence of the film’s ending, if not its specifics, very early on.
But Fraser—always a wonderful actor, and one who hasn’t had the career he deserves—defies the predictability of the movie’s arc. He shows us Charlie’s self-pity, and allows it to be annoying. There are so many ways in which this guy is just a drag to be around; his self-destruction is at least partly entwined with his self-centeredness. Fraser doesn’t just give us permission to feel exasperation for this character; he guides us right to those feelings.
And yet to look into his eyes is to see a person who’s willing himself to die, even as he wishes he had the will to live. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this flawed film, which grooves too self-indulgently on its own gloomy vibe, and not wish you could reach out to Charlie, to find the right thing to say, to help without rendering judgment. It almost seems as if Charlie, in his kindness, is comforting us for our own feelings of futility. But really, that’s Fraser at work, not telling us what to feel, but reassuring us that it’s OK to feel.
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