The Whale: A Necessary Film in a Challenging Medium

       A lonely apartment, sparsely decorated by bookshelves precariously loaded with the classics all English teachers proselytize to their students, is the sole setting of an ambitious new film from director Darren Aronofsky. Titled The Whale and adapted from the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter it has become the clamant film of the end of 2022, generating conversation, revenue, and a considerable amount of Oscar buzz for its leading man – Brendan Fraser. 

       The heart of the film is Charlie, played by Fraser, a 600-pound gay man who is attempting to reconnect with his daughter Ellie after abandoning her for his lover, Allen. With his life nearing a close, Charlie’s apartment has transformed itself into a coffin, lingering memories and incomplete desires floating about; Charlie’s mind is replete with the harshness of reflection on a life that feels half-lived, literally and figuratively. His short list of visitors is comprised of Liz, a close friend who happens to be the sister of the now deceased man that Charlie left his family to be with, Ellie, Charlie’s high-school-age bigoted daughter, Thomas, a young visitor from a local religious organization, and Mary, Charlie’s volatile and heartbroken ex-wife. With these few characters, Aronofsky and Hunter, who also adapted the play into the script, challenge the viewers with a careful examination of several complicated and morally ambiguous characters, primarily Charlie and Ellie. Though intrinsically limited by its plot and central character, each scene feels fresh and unique; the movie is never bogged down by erosion of tension due to the lack of novel settings or faces. Complemented by an intense and beautifully curated score and cinematography that is saturated with as much emotion as the faces of the actors, it feels like this movie has all the materials necessary to be the slow-burn, philosophical, high-browed film that critics and viewers alike love, so where does it go wrong and are the criticisms fair?

       One of the largest complaints the film received was that it used the obesity of the main character to an almost exploitative extent. While the argument is valid, in large part due to several intense scenes of Charlie binge eating that feel not only distasteful but completely unnecessary, I believe this train of thought is missing the true meaning of what Charlie’s obesity represents. The suffocating nature of the up-close camera work and “fat suit” is not meant to be a mockery of Charlie – or any overweight person – but rather it serves as a commentary on the claustrophobic nature of Charlie’s grief. It is a visual reminder, nearly every second of the film, that Charlie has had something beautiful stolen from him and this is why he is in his current state. It was not some act of carelessness or gluttony that led him to obesity but rather the disillusionment and diffusion of his life into a form that was completely unrecognizable. We need to understand the essential presence that is motivating him to reconnect with his daughter and that presence is his grief, his loss, his understanding that life is unfairly not interminable but instead cruelly finite. This understanding and the way that it has changed Charlie’s life does not make him less of a human being but instead one of supreme complication. In a way, it feels as though the writer of the original play has provided all of the tools we need to view Charlie with compassion, understanding him on such an intimate level that he feels truly real. Charlie is never presented as a villain or a monster – as his own daughter seems to believe – but rather as a man lost in the weight of his own despair – a human being. And yet, despite the unbearable grief he is living through, Charlie never forgets the power of kindness, of compassion, of life in itself; as he puts it, “People are amazing.” That is the core message of this film, and it feels at times that the discourse surrounding the perhaps distasteful use of obesity as a plot point has overshadowed the true potency of Charlie’s very life. His story – and everything he represents – has become the latest victim of the modern sword of ignorant social commentary; the true heart of this film stabbed before the movie’s core message could even be broached. 

       Despite the criticism, an undeniable part of this movie’s buzz is the narrative that has engulfed the film’s star, Brendan Fraser. The Whale serves as Fraser’s return to acting after a prolonged hiatus. Initially seen as one of Hollywood’s up-and-coming stars in the ‘90s, Fraser’s career was put on hold as he moved away from the City of Angels to focus on healing the wounds of the mistreatment he faced during the early years of his career. In The Whale, Fraser returns in full force to the big screen, performing the greatest performance of his career and one of the strongest of this year. Fraser has leaned into the narrative surrounding his reemergence, delivering an emotional speech after winning the Critic’s Choice Award for Lead Actor in which he spoke about the importance and power of looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not hard to see why Fraser found himself drawn to the role of Charlie; the connections between his own story and Charlie’s are incredibly strong. 

       Fraser brings this movie to life. He is at the center of nearly every scene and he holds the stringent plot together. His work is beyond commendable; I just wish it would have been received in a way that would have done it the justice it deserves. Perhaps this movie still has time to reshape its own perception. In fact, audience scores for the movie have been significantly higher than the critic reviews, so perhaps the problem, as I stated earlier, is not the movie or its plot but the ways that the critics have received it. Always so sure of themselves, perhaps the critics are incredibly scared to admit that they got this movie wrong. Confident that audiences would perceive it poorly, the writers of the major newspapers and magazines jumped the gun in condemning this movie to an early death.