Darren Aronofsky is a director who is no stranger to outside-of-the-box films. Whether it be the stark portrayal of drug addiction in Requiem for a Dream, or the depiction of an obsessed performer in Black Swan, he is known for capturing a grandiose and ominous feeling in his genre of choice: Psychological thrillers. In Dec. 2022, he released The Whale, which is a large step away from his typical style in the A24-produced film.
This is Aronofsky’s first movie in five years, and he brings back Brendan Fraser, a familiar face to the big screen who has also been away from the limelight as of late. Fraser plays the main character Charlie, a 600-pound man whose main goal is to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie, played by Stranger Things star Sadie Sink. Other characters around him include his caregiver and friend Jane, his ex-wife and a Christian missionary who goes door-to-door trying to convert Charlie. With such a small ensemble, the entire movie is driven by dialogue, and the cinematography for the most part does not contain any flashy elements or grandiose shots. The movie is one of the most important films I have watched that came out recently, as it portrays a story that is profound and touching in more ways than one.
The movie takes place almost exclusively within the confines of Charlie’s living room and follows him throughout what are possibly the last days of his life. The movie is much more minimalistic in that sense than anything Aronofsky has ever produced. There are no supernatural forces pushing the story forward, just the tension that Charlie’s last days are looming due to his health. The title The Whale is twofold in that Charlie reads one essay when he is under duress is about the whale in the novel Moby Dick, and a nod back to the fact that Charlie physically is such a large presence on the screen. Fraser is a master here with his eyes, as they display his raw emotions, whether that be pain, joy or regret, he is able to communicate without using any words.
Charlie’s occupation is an English teacher at an online college, enabling him to keep his identity hidden since he is ashamed of his appearance. Charlie ultimately divorced his wife to be with a man, and for that, his daughter unabashedly loathes him. However, Charlie’s main goal while he is alive is to develop a connection with her, and this is what makes the story work so well. It is seemingly difficult to root for him, as he has made enormous mistakes, but his strive for change is the most realistic concept of the film.
The movie is unsettling to say the least, and has been met with very polarized reception. Charlie, at his root, is a revolting character who, whenever he eats, is something to behold. However, Fraser gave a performance of a lifetime. Even though he is hard to watch due to an ultra-realistic 300 pound fat suit and his heart failure that plagues his life constantly, Charlie still seems human. It is hard to put into words the emotions this movie gave me, because it made me feel personally conflicted. Critics have made the claim that the film is fatphobic and that the characters can fall flat around each other with weak dialogue because the movie is an adaptation of a play. However, this is far from the truth. The movie was moving with a purpose, and even though it is hard to adapt a movie from a play, this works well with the tools it has.
The movie simultaneously evokes feelings of unrest and hope, as it seems imminent that Charlie will let his vices consume him, but it is so easy to root for him and believe he will change. This creates an impactful story, as unsettling as it is. There are still humorous aspects, but this is a drama at its core. The climax features a Requiem for a Dream-esque sequence, as the movie culminates with multiple parts intertwining and the score reaching a pinnacle, which was my favorite part of the film. When I saw this movie in the Regal Cinema, it was mostly empty, but there was one row of people sitting behind me who were all crying after the movie was over. Like many of Aronofsky’s films, raw depictions of characters at their lowest might be difficult to rewatch. Specifically in The Whale, this manifests itself in there being several scenes that display his gluttony with no subtlety and the use of a dramatic score composed to create discomfort. Nevertheless, this is a movie that is worth watching and taking the opportunity to sit with often unexplored topics.
Raphael Mazhandu is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].