LFF 2022 Review: Darren Aronofsky's Stirring, Tearful 'The Whale'
by Manuel São Bento
October 14, 2022
I don't usually follow celebrities' personal lives, nor do I have a genuine interest in them. However, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't heard Brendan Fraser's heartbreaking story. I recommend a quick search for anyone unfamiliar with it, as it's inevitable not to feel greater compassion for his character given everything the actor has had to overcome in the last decade – he was even forced to put his acting career on hold. The Whale not only marks his return magnificently, but is also yet another compelling work in the filmography of one of Hollywood's most divisive, and most original, filmmakers – Darren Aronofsky. As expected with Aronofsky, it's yet another shocking, visually unsettling piece that no viewer will soon forget… thankfully.
It's impossible to not start with Fraser. The Whale makes the actor use a prosthetic outfit to play Charlie, a morbidly obese, binge-eating man trying to reconnect with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). It's, without a doubt, one of the most memorable, powerful performances of his career. Despite his health condition and traumatic past, Charlie proves to be a genuinely good person who cares for others and sees life in the most positive light possible. Samuel D. Hunter's screenplay, based on his own stage play, isn't tied down by anything, being brutally honest about everything it touches: whether it's how other people see Charlie, what they feel about him, or even what he thinks of himself.
The Whale has some incredibly stirring, hard-to-bear dialogue, elevated by Fraser in a truly breathtaking manner. It's difficult not to feel Charlie's inner pain, no matter who is watching, as well as the frustration of those who care about him and try to help, even against his own will. A heavy story that, handling several themes, addresses society's hypocrisy and lack of honesty in the face of situations that everyone knows how to describe perfectly – people in film criticism should learn a lot from many statements delivered by this movie. There are also some excellent messages, albeit harsh, about positivism and self-acceptance, but the main focus is on Charlie's trauma and his redemption arc as a father.
Pity and compassion are probably the most common feelings any viewer will have watching The Whale. Even after discovering Charlie's mistakes that deeply affected his family, especially his daughter, his regret emerges as something tremendously genuine, and his willingness to correct the wrongs of the past gives rise to dozens of uncontrollably emotional moments. This is where all of the heartfelt, chest-squeezing, painful dialogue comes in. Fraser prompts intense reactions in audiences through many of his impassioned line deliveries, transforming tears into waterfalls, lips into a blubbering mess, and words into broken jibberish.
With the help of one of the most promising, talented actresses of today – Sadie Sink is outstanding – and with an equally tender performance by Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie's at home nurse and best friend, The Whale manages to remain captivating even through a slower second act and with a predictable conclusion. Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a religious missionary who shows up at his door, has perhaps the only storyline that ends up not adding much to either Charlie's arc or the narrative itself. On the other hand, Ellie and Liz do a lot to demonstrate Charlie's kind, remarkably positive outlook towards everyone around him, even when others can only see evil.
The fact that the entire film takes place inside a tiny apartment doesn't leave much room for creativity, but Aronofsky utilizes cinematographer Matthew Libatique's lingering shots to develop a constantly engaging atmosphere. The build-up for the overwhelmingly climactic ending is superb, saving a lot of tension for the last few minutes, where the score in particular also stands out (by Rob Simonsen). It's a crescendo ending that compensates for some pacing issues due to the repetitive plot points, but that doesn't change the fact that many viewers won't feel the desire to watch this film again.
The Whale is far from a comfortable, easy watch. It's a sad, frustrating, upsetting piece of cinema, and while it does contain occasional moments of humor, it follows a serious, depressing tone for most of its runtime. Therefore, a divisive reception (once again following Mother!) shouldn't be surprising, despite Aronofsky transmitting essential messages that must be conveyed powerfully. Otherwise, no one will listen carefully. As Charlie mentions several times during the flick, there's no reason for people not to be totally honest since it's precisely because of the protagonist's authenticity that one ends up suffering with and also for him.
The Whale earns its place in the "most tearful films of the year" list as it moves slowly yet efficiently towards its overwhelmingly emotional ending, especially elevated by the most subtly powerful & irrefutably moving performance of Brendan Fraser's career. The rest of the cast contributes to the construction of a character with whom tremendous compassion is produced, but it isn't an easily digestible movie due to its disturbing, uncomfortable moments. Darren Aronofsky presents a depressing, passionate, and, above all, brutally honest story about trauma, acceptance, and positivity. The filmmaker's lack of restraint may be a trigger for some, but the impact of his messages couldn't be more memorable. Bring tissues.