A morbidly obese man racked with self-loathing makes a desperate eleventh-hour attempt to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter in the overstuffed but worthwhile drama, The Whale. Brendan Fraser, reshaped by three hundred pounds of prosthetics, stars as Charlie. Charlie’s horrific physical condition isn’t the only thing that makes the titular metaphor so apropos; like a beached whale, Charlie’s sheer bulk has rendered him virtually immobile. The script, directed by cult filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and adapted from the play written by Samuel D. Hunter, is as housebound as the main character; The Whale takes place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment over the course of several days as he tries to make peace with his past.
Written into Charlie’s story is a tidy bit of gender parity: three women, three men. Charlie’s friend and caregiver, played by Hong Chau, is a fiery no-nonsense nurse named Liz. Samantha Morton plays Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. She’s the mother of Charlie’s eighteen-year-old daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink, whom he also hasn’t seen in ten years. All three women spend most of their time on screen hyperventilating. Poor Liz, who obviously loves Charlie like a brother, is fed up with his refusal to accept life-saving medical intervention. Mary, still furious over Charlie leaving her for a man named Alan, used their daughter as a way to punish him by preventing Charlie from seeing her. Ellie, having heard only one side of the story, thinks it was his fault that he’s been MIA since she was eight years old.
The three male characters are considerably less overwrought. Dan the Pizza Man, played by Sathya Sridharan, drops off artery-clogging meals. Thomas, played by Ty Simpkins, is a disciple of the New Life Church who wants to save Charlie’s secular soul before the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive. And then there’s Alan, the love of Charlie’s life. We never actually see Alan because Alan is dead, but he finds his way into most scenes all the same. Alan took his own life, and the circumstances surrounding his suicide provide the key to understanding how Charlie developed his eating disorder.
Charlie supports himself by teaching an online course on how to write “clearly and persuasively.” It’s ironic considering The Whale is awash with so many ideas that any clear messaging becomes murky. The stigma attached to being extremely overweight, the stigma attached to being gay, the inherently problematic way organized religion proselytizes, the double-edged sword of being truthful to one’s self and others, the innate biases parents have for their children, the inability to truly know another person, and how emotional trauma can literally shape us – which themes resonate the loudest will most certainly vary from viewer to viewer.
Brendan Fraser is absolutely superb in his portrayal of Charlie, and the filmmaking choices help define his character. The shadowy underlit cinematography reflects his despair and diminishing health, the boxy aspect ratio emphasizes his confinement, and the score by Rob Simonsen underlines the unrelenting pathos of his life. Charlie feels he must atone. The tragedy is that he’s accepted death as his punishment, one pizza, one candy bar, and one meatball sandwich at a time. This makes The Whale a tough watch. All Charlie can hope for is achieving some measure of redemption in the eyes of his daughter before his whale-sized heart gives out.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.
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