In a town in Idaho, Charlie, a reclusive and unhealthy English teacher, hides out in his flat and eats his way to death. He is desperate to reconnect with his teenage daughter for a last chance at redemption.
The Whale, the latest directorial project from Darren Aronofsky, is hindered by a reluctance to push an interesting premise to its full potential. Simultaneously captivating and monotonous, the film is set in one apartment and features only a small cast of characters, and demands a very broad knowledge of context in order to be fully appreciated. This need primarily concerns Brendan Fraser. The impact his stunning performance will have on a given person will undoubtedly correlate with their awareness of his tragic career and personal life, and, in particular, his long battle with depression that was allegedly sparked by the president of the HFPA sexually assaulting him in 2006. The more we know about Fraser, the more it is clear that he is able to elevate his character to such an ecstatic high by pouring himself into the role. A working knowledge of Darren Aronofsky’s career, however, can only really hinder enjoyment of the film: The Whale is a step back for him, both stylistically and thematically. It does not share the grit of his timeless Requiem For A Dream nor the zaniness of Mother! Worst of all, however, is the comparison to The Wrestler: the two films share a fundamentally identical premise, only really differing in the physicality of the eponymous characters. This repetition signifies a deep redundancy at the core of The Whale; one which two perfect performances almost fail to expunge.
A knowledge of wider political context is also implicitly required by the film: Charlie’s weight, the primary conflict, is a clear and level-gazed commentary on U.S. culture. He started to binge-eat after his partner, Alan, committed suicide as a result of internalised homophobia, and he refuses to go to hospital, using the – ultimately fabricated – excuse that he cannot afford to. These choices form a neat intersection between three prevalent stateside societal concerns: the obesity epidemic, religious bigotry, and an exploitative healthcare system. Subtlety, however, has never been Aronofsky’s forte: none of these issues are treated with any particular delicacy, and this tendency towards bluntness extends to some of the performances, too. Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins stand out in this regard, and in this regard only. They do as much as they can with Samuel D. Hunter’s script, but their characters are often one-note to the point of absurdity. Sink’s character in particular is almost cartoonishly evil throughout, and no amount of self-awareness on this front prevented the character from coming across as increasingly unrealistic. Hong Chau, however, gives a stunning performance, straddling the line perfectly between sympathy and frustration. The film shines in dialogue-heavy scenes between her and Fraser, and it is a pity that Aronofsky did not adapt Hunter’s script to be more broadly orientated around this fascinating relationship, rather than deciding to run in circles around a stroppy Machiavellian daughter or an inexplicable evangelist.
The setting is well-executed: the entire film, bar a handful of shots on the porch, takes place in Charlie’s apartment, the geography of which is well-conveyed. Aronofsky did not use colour in any particularly inventive ways, however, and genuinely interesting cinematography was sparse. The use of the apartment’s lighting was well-executed, and the shots of Charlie struggling to walk were able to fully convey his size in an interesting way. However, the film was otherwise largely disappointing on a stylistic level. It edges towards realism, but does not quite commit quite enough to actually disturb. Charlie, if anything, should have been reimagined in an even more pitiable state. If a weaker actor had donned Fraser’s fat-suit, the result could easily have been laughable. Rob Simonsen’s score is overblown and often manipulative: this, combined with the lack of subtlety in the script, often disrupted the genuinity of Chau and Fraser’s performances; something which two weaker actors would not have been able to overcome so gracefully, and which, in tandem with the film’s constant thematic anxiety concerning honesty, borders on hypocrisy.
The film is generally well-paced. It takes place over one working week, and each day receives roughly the same amount of screentime. It is two hours long, and it felt two hours long. Perhaps
it would have been more interesting to have set the film over the period of years, in order to witness Charlie’s problem emerge, but the five-day premise is interesting enough in itself to keep the project afloat. The use of set-ups and payoffs was generally rather sloppy: Charlie’s fixation over his daughter’s essay on Moby Dick, while an unconventional trait, is extremely heavy-handed. Ellie’s early comment that she ‘remembers everything’ will so transparently be reiterated later that, when the pay-off does happen, it’s incredibly tiresome. Certain actions are repeated ad infinitum. Someone knocking on the door; Charlie shuffling around on his walker; Ellie slouching on the couch; Liz switching on the TV. By the end of the film, there had been so many instances of a given character opening the apartment’s front door only to dramatically stand, silhouetted, against the sky, that it became genuinely ridiculous. Yes, the film is set in one location, with only a small cast of characters. The resulting plot had no reason to be rendered equally repetitive, but Hunter and Aronofsky must have missed the memo.
This film is, in spite of a plethora of self-evident and frustrating problems, still one of the better theatrical releases of the past year. It entertains themes where most films would not dare to tread, features two genuinely perfect performances in Chau and Fraser, is decently-paced, and could no-doubt be, depending on a given person’s personal relationship with their family and history of addiction, an emotionally impactful experience. That being said, The Whale is not for everyone. It is not quite as depressing as many people make it out to be, especially in comparison to other notable titles distributed by A24, but it is still certainly not for the faint of heart. It is a film predicated on context, and struggles to become an entity unto itself.
The Whale is out now in UK cinemas.