The Whale review: An eloquent and powerful look at last-chance redemption
Brendan Fraser delivers a barnstorming performance in Darren Aronofsky's new film.
Director Darren Aronofsky once more goes down his favoured thematic rabbit hole with the idea of pushing the human body to its absolute limits and the psychological strains on the soul in doing so. In The Fountain it was metaphysical, in Requiem for a Dream it was drug-related and in both The Wrestler and Black Swan it was purely physical.
The Whale continues that haunting premise with binge-eating Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese, 600-pound gay recluse who is literally punishing his body for the suicidal death of his lover from anorexia. Based on Simon D Hunter’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical play (premiered off-Broadway in 2012), it is easily Aronofsky’s most eloquent, powerful and sincere examination of last-chance redemption within a vivid portrait of the inability to escape the sadness of one’s own existence.
In a run-down apartment in rural Idaho, teacher Charlie is giving online writing lessons over Zoom with his webcam turned off – he says it’s broken - so his pupils can’t see him in person.
On one hand, he’s offering remote advice while actually trying to desperately reconnect with his estranged daughter (superb Sadie Sink from Stranger Things) by ghostwriting her English essay homework. He’s even blackmailing her into grudging visits with promises of inheritance money. But her bitchy viciousness is a hurdle proving hard to dodge even though the two exploring the boundaries of mutual trust are among the most wildly funny and moving scenes.
It’s within this narrow universe that Charlie’s deceased boyfriend’s sister (wonderful Hong Chau) is nagging him to seek medical attention before eating himself to death, a confused New Life missionary (wide-eyed Ty Simpkins) sees him as a doorstep convert challenge, his hurt ex-wife (Samantha Morton in uber fierce mode) wants relationship answers, and a virtually unseen pizza delivery man checks up on the welfare of his best customer through the letterbox.
More like this
Trading on everyone’s shared experiences with limited pandemic connection and keeping his stage-to-screen adaptation simplicity itself, Aronofsky deliberately reins in his often flamboyant style, underlining the theatrical origins of the intense chamber piece by using the claustrophobic Academy ratio to make this penetrating look at self-destruction through abject grief a lesson in how people are incapable of not caring.
With every one of the stellar supporting cast making an indelible impact, The Whale isn’t just a one-man show. Nevertheless, it’s Brendan Fraser who dominates the confined setting with a self-deprecating, barnstorming performance as the lovable man mountain in constant mourning. In a flawlessly CGI-augmented prosthetic suit, underrated comeback kid Fraser trades on his past goofy charms to great effect.
In semi-retirement due to painful stunt injuries and alleging that he was industry blacklisted after making sexual assault claims, Fraser proved he was more than puppy dog eyes and muscles in Gods and Monsters.
Here his masterful take on Charlie’s never-wavering dignity and refusal to be defeated by traumatic addiction as he showers, masturbates to gay porn and staggers around his rundown apartment with a barely adequate zimmer frame, keeps Aronofsky’s significant drama well-balanced and convincing. Oscar voters will clearly be paying attention.
Aronofsky has never been one to shy away from religious issues – mother! anyone? – and Simpkins’s character (interestingly changed from Mormon in the play to a more nebulous faith) embodies that spiritual dichotomy even more, especially as Charlie’s boyfriend also suffered from the damaging New Life doctrine.
And then there’s The Whale title itself, the true Moby Dick meaning only snapping into focus in the final moments of this emotional epic that’s big-hearted – in fact exceptionally big in every single sense.