Movie Review: ‘The Whale’

Plot: Morbidly obese online English teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) spends his days imparting sentence and essay structure details to less-than-enthralled classes. An agoraphobic who can’t get over the suicide of his former lover Alan, Charlie somehow manages to keep an upbeat and empathetic attitude despite his shame. Charlie’s only friend is Liz (Hong Chau) a nurse and Alan’s sister. When Charlie and Liz discover he has congestive heart failure, Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, instead looking to reconnect with this estranged, bitter, and vicious daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). When fate sends him Ellie and missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) Charlie understands this might be his last shot at redemption.

Review: Director Darren Aronofsky remains one of the more intriguing directors working today. Beginning with 1998’s Pi, Aronofsky has explored some of the deeper and darker aspects of the human condition. They haven’t all been triumphs (Noah is quite terrible) but at the absolute minimum they’ve all been provocative. My biggest issue with Aronofsky films is they are too dour and/or end on a depressing note. Listen I don’t expect every movie I see to have the joyous feel of Babe, but I also don’t want them all to end like Freaks. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised that The Whale, despite the difficult subject matter, was hopeful.

The hopefulness stems from The Whale’s main character Charlie. You’d expect an obese, agoraphobic man who’s lost the love of his life to be morose and miserable. Yet Charlie is anything but. In fact, he’s a ray of positivity and empathy, something his ex-wife both loves and loathes. This ranges the gamut from laughing at his own weight despite his shame or leaving a plate of food for the bird that occasionally stops by his window. That’s not to say that Charlie is perfect or doesn’t struggle. He’s myopic when it comes to his vicious daughter, his tendency to see the best in people while admirable, sometimes borders on naïve, and he absolutely refuses to get any help for himself. It is because of Charlie’s imperfections, his fallacies, that we are able to relate to him. We may all not be six hundred pounds, but we all struggle with loss and pain, we are all complex.

Some may find Aronofsky’s decision to keep The Whale’s setting almost exclusively in Charlie’s apartment confining, but it’s important to note that The Whale was originally a play. Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the play, also serves as screenwriter here. It’s not easy to adapt a piece of art from one medium to another, but Hunter pulls it off beautifully. None of the nuance or subtleties are lost, and the best compliment I can give is that it doesn’t feel like a play.

In any case, having the setting restricted to Charlie’s apartment keeps the audience fully ensconced in Charlie’s world. We, like Charlie, are trapped there with him. His world has become those walls and so we share in his elation when being visited by Liz and are consumed by his loathing when he binge eats. And Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique do not shy away from the latter. It’s easily one of the more difficult things I’ve had to watch. But that’s also the genius of Aronofsky, he refuses to let you look away from the darkest parts of ourselves.

While the focus remains on Charlie and his struggles, The Whale’s supporting cast here is excellent. Sink is simply spectacular as Charlie’s vicious and borderline evil daughter Ellie. Ellie is consumed by the pain and rage she feels after her father abandoned Ellie and her Mom for Alan. Initially, all she understands is spite, and is happy to call Charlie disgusting and fat while posting pictures of his obese body on Facebook. I both hated, sympathized, and hoped for Ellie. Trust me Sink’s Ellie will make you forget all about Max from Stranger Things. Hong Chau earns her Academy Award nomination with a layered and nuanced performance. Her character Liz is both empathetic and frustrating at times. Liz clearly cares for Charlie, not just because he loved her brother but because Charlie is a genuinely good person. However, Liz also feels tremendous guilt over her brother’s suicide and believes she’s duty-bound to protect Charlie, to the point of trying to isolate him from his daughter and newfound friend Thomas. Speaking of Thomas, Ty Simpkins provides some of the most dynamic acting work in the film. Ostensibly a missionary, Thomas isn’t what he appears to be and his ultimate arc is both surprising and heartbreaking.

And then there’s Brendan Fraser.

Everything you’ve heard about his performance is true and then some. I honestly didn’t think Fraser had this kind of performance in him. He gives everything he possibly has to this role. Every time Charlie wheezes, every time Charlie struggles to his feet, every time Charlie recites his favorite essay about Moby Dick to calm himself down, we are right there with him. Fraser delivers a character in Charlie that’s arguably one of the most empathetic characters I’ve ever seen on screen. In a world where too many people meet pain and hate with more pain and hate, Charlie instead chooses love and empathy. Charlie chooses kindness and compassion. He knows he’s messed up, especially when it comes to his daughter and maybe it’s too late to fix things, but he has to try because to do nothing is anathema to Charlie’s very being. The tone and timbre and the way that Fraser delivers these lines is staggering and had me choking up more than once. Charlie chooses patience and peace again, and again, and again.

In the end, The Whale’s Charlie reminds us that no matter what we’ve done, no matter the pain we are carrying, and no matter how heavy the burden, we are all worthy of grace. Sometimes we have to look for it in others and be ready to receive it ourselves. Because, to quote Charlie, if you give them a chance, “people are amazing.”

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

The Whale: 9/10