Brendan Fraser delivers an astonishing performance in Darren Aronofsky’s latest tale of cathartic transformation
Critic’s Disclaimer: Julian Singleton previously interned with Protozoa Pictures, Darren Aronofsky’s production company, in Spring 2012. He currently works for Megalomedia, the production company of My 600-lb Life.
To Charlie (Brendan Fraser), his cramped two-bedroom apartment in Moscow, Idaho may as well be the totality of the known universe. Buried under 600 pounds of body weight, he rarely leaves his couch, aided only by a walker to go to the bathroom or to feebly attempt sleeping in a cramped bed. His caretaker, Liz (Hong Chau), enables Charlie’s worsening condition as much as she tries to abate it with regular deliveries of meatball subs accompanying her checkups. When Liz recognizes signs of heart failure, she urges Charlie to go to the hospital; Charlie fights back with a defeated, optimistic apathy. However, Charlie’s awakened sense of mortality spurs him to do the unthinkable and reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who Charlie abandoned eight years ago in order to be with his now-deceased partner.
Darren Aronofsky recognizes that to get at an audience’s heart, you must first get under their skin. Across his filmography, Aronofsky viscerally depicts how characters must unravel before they can be reborn. Whether it’s metaphorical resurrection like in mother! or The Fountain, or literal metamorphoses like in The Wrestler or Black Swan, Aronofsky tests the physical and psychological limits of both characters and audience along the journey of deliverance. The Whale is Aronofsky’s latest act of transformation, and with its one-apartment setting shot in a claustrophobic Academy ratio, it’s the director’s most stripped-down and sparse film yet. We are as bound to Charlie’s circumstances as he is. This formal asceticism only heightens the searing emotional impact of the film’s ensemble cast, led by a career-best performance by Brendan Fraser.
Much of The Whale is dedicated to how Charlie ekes out a bare minimum of a life. He teaches online University courses with a “broken” webcam, preventing his students from seeing what he really looks like. He watches trash talk shows with Liz in between oximeter readings, their snarky conversations dancing around the tragic roots of their friendship. Alone, or in the midst of a heart attack scare, Charlie reads a faded Moby Dick essay. In it, the writer ruminates on how Ishmael’s narrative diversions are his own distraction from how terrible his life really is. The appearance of other characters in The Whale provides the biggest differentiation between Charlie’s days, fulfilling a similar purpose. However, Aronofsky and Samuel D. Hunter also treat these arrivals as layers that peel back to reveal the traumatic origins of Charlie’s condition. As young and zealous missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) makes it his mission to “save” Charlie, we grow to understand just how much Charlie refuses to be the object of others’ pity, regardless of how much Charlie doubts such salvation is even possible. To Charlie, if there’s anyone who deserves to suffer, it’s him; his condition isn’t an affliction to be cured, but a sentence to bear.
Through skillful production design, Hunter and Aronofsky augment the original claustrophobia of Hunter’s original stage play; frequent glances at a kitchen window provide clues for who’s suddenly invading Charlie’s life, as well as providing a last glance at whoever’s about to vanish from it. A centered couch provides a limiting nexus point for Charlie, with the visitors darting in and out of its orbit ever conscious of how Charlie can’t get up and close that distance with him. We’re perpetually conscious of how much isn’t possible or within reach, immersed in Charlie’s physical limitation at being reduced to an audience member in his own life.
But from the keys to locked away bedrooms Charlie keeps out of reach, to the stashes of candy bars and pizzas always a grab away, Aronofsky and Hunter tread a delicate path in depicting Charlie’s excess-ridden monasticism. Writing off Charlie’s weight as a value judgment with physical consequences denies the years of guilt and grief that brought him to this point. It places him at a comfortable yet dehumanizing distance of spectacle. Echoing the opening acts of My 600-lb Life, Charlie’s masochistic binge-eating and painful struggles for mobility rip off the band-aid of initial expectations. It weaponizes any sense of disgust or pity, for sympathy and understanding are two very different beasts.
As Aronofsky and Hunter reveal the motivations for Charlie’s refusal to seek help, we understand how his trauma metastasized into his current weight. Charlie’s self-deprecation regarding his appearance isn’t meant to validate social prejudices against obesity. Rather, it’s Charlie begging others to validate how much he deserves what he’s done to himself. There are valid concerns about the choice to immerse Fraser in transformative prosthetics than seek out an actor with the weight for the role, as well as the concerns raised by production on the toll a demanding shoot may take on such an actor’s health. To me, though, Fraser’s casting works on another level of audience expectation. However much we might be aware of the actor under the prosthetics, we know on some human level that Charlie — like anyone burdened by societal prejudices against their abilities — is someone who exists separate and beyond the condition that cocoons him. Regardless of his physical condition, we know how far he’s retreated within himself. In turn, that provokes how much we root for him to reach back out to the world.
The rest of The Whale’s ensemble suffers from similar self-imposed acts of retribution, each filling in nuances of Charlie’s drive for obligatory isolation. Sink’s Ellie turns Charlie’s efforts to get closer to her via her schoolwork into an interrogation of his failings as a father. However, it becomes clear how much she’s internalized her sense of abandonment, and how her self-actualizing villainy towards Charlie and later Thomas runs close to self-sabotage. Samantha Morton as Ellie’s mother/Charlie’s ex-wife Mary has similarly internalized being defined by the consequences of Charlie’s choices: being abandoned by a man who ran off with his gay lover, left with no one else but a girl who coped by tormenting everyone around her. Simpkins manically plays Thomas as someone whose faith has warped into something that isn’t believed for its own sake, but something that can only be proven by “saving” others. And Chau’s Liz, in a stunner of a monologue, recognizes just how much she’s hurting Charlie by enabling him…but is equally convinced that faith (whether from Thomas or anyone else) is capable of doing equally lasting damage, as both her, Charlie, and his deceased partner are all victims of belief. Each of the performers races along a spectrum of venomous spite and agonizing despair, but all find themselves lifted by Charlie’s relentless, seemingly misplaced optimism.
What Fraser does in this role is revelatory, charging The Whale with the necessary conviction it needs for Aronofsky’s transformative effect to really take hold. Regardless of who he talks to in the gloom of his apartment, Fraser makes Charlie’s eyes shine with a nearly seemingly incongruous wonder. No matter how much he believes he’s earned the life he’s imposed upon himself, Charlie desperately tries to instill in them his belief that no one else deserves the same fate. What’s more, amidst all of their self-hatred or hatred for others, he fervently believes that by extension, they all work together to lift each other up. “Do you ever get the feeling,” Charlie intones late in the film, “that people are incapable of not caring?” In his performance, Fraser drives home just how much Charlie needs to recognize that same endless potential of humanity in himself.
The Whale is an earnest plea as much as it is a provocation–one to understand ourselves as much as those around us. With his new film, Aronofsky recognizes how agonizing grief and guilt may be, but that the rewards of redemption are worth far more than any possible act of retribution.
The Whale had its Texas Premiere at the 2022 Austin Film Festival, with a theatrical release by A24 planned for December 9th.