Venice 2022: Brendan Fraser is Exceptional in Aronofsky's 'The Whale'
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2022
Honesty matters so much. More than anything, especially right now. But it is quite dangerous; it can be hard to hear, disruptive and upsetting when that honesty stings. But we really need honesty. It can change us, it can make an impact on the world, it can bring us closer together as long as we grow from the emotions we feel when we're hit with that honesty. There's so much about The Whale to talk about, but the discussions about honesty in the film got me the most. I can't deny it, honesty is so important to me, even though it has hurt me so much in my life. Darren Aronofsky's new film The Whale is another knock out. I think it might be his best since The Fountain (which is a controversial statement because not everyone likes this film). It's an emotional, heart-wrenching, deeply felt story told perfectly by a master filmmaker who knows how to get the finest performances out of his actors. I was overwhelmed by emotions, wiping away tears for an hour after.
Adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter, with a script also written by Hunter, The Whale is filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's latest film since making Mother! in 2017 – which also premiered in Venice and oh the critics hated it. I loved it (here's my review from then). Every film Aronofsky has made is worth watching. Every film he makes is always about obsession, whether it be ballet or wrestling or drugs or love or, in this case, food. But his films are also about the unlimited nature of love and passion, and they're extraordinarily soulful films based on authentic emotions and the kind of feelings that can change everything. The Whale stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a morbidly obese man, who never leaves his apartment. The entire film is actually set in his apartment, and is about his relationship with his daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink, who shows up randomly one day, as well as an awkward missionary from a local Christian church who keeps knocking on his door. As he attempts to reconnect with Ellie, all of their emotions come screaming out of them. As upsetting as it is to watch them be so brutally honest, that is precisely what changes everything.
To get this out of the way, The Whale is not a fat-shaming film in any way, shape, or form. In fact, much of the dialogue refutes this. His best friend, a nurse who visits him all the time played by Hong Chau, often talks about how he doesn't need "saving". He doesn't want to go to the hospital, he doesn't want redemption, he doesn't need it. He just wants to be honest with those he loves and he wants to help those he can. While many people will think he is disgusting, Charlie is a really beautiful person beneath all that fat. And that's ultimately the point of this film. His positivity is even mocked in a few scenes, while everyone else around him rages about how careless he is and how everyone sucks and how shitty people are to each other. All of this is true, it really is, but here is one man that can't even stand up on his own and yet he is filled with so much warmth and so much goodness and so much love for those around him. There's plenty of depressing, cynical conversations in this film but beneath all of that is this story of compassion, of reminding people they are amazing. Sure, laugh at me for repeating that, but it's true and I don't mind being honest about it.
In terms of filmmaking, Aronofsky is undoubtedly one of the most talented American filmmakers making films today and he has proven this time and time again with everything he makes. It's not easy to craft a film about an extremely fat man who can't leave his apartment, yet make it entirely watchable and emotional. It's incredibly hard to make this story look good on screen and have an uplifting undercurrent, especially when there is so much cynicism in here, but Aronofsky's partnership with cinematographer Matthew Libatique proves fruitful once again. The story is based on a play, but Aronofsky is able to make it feel cinematic, with clever insert shots and careful framing (using the condensed Academy 1.375:1 aspect ratio). By the end of the film, my mind started to wonder if this would be as engaging on repeat viewings, or if I'd even want to rewatch it, but as I sat drench in tears during the last few scenes I had distinct feeling that it will be the kind of film I find myself revisiting and feeling deeply moved by no matter how many times I rewatch it. There's just this remarkable love within, perfectly representing the idea that beneath the surface there's much more.
Of course, everyone should be talking about Brendan Fraser and his monumental performance. He has stated in interviews that he gave everything to this role, and that's clearly visible in every last scene of this film. It's the kind of phenomenal acting that will be talked about forever. His emotion is so deep, so pure, so honest, that it's hard to even believe there's an actor hiding beneath all those prosthetics. I really hope that everyone who watches The Whale is moved by Fraser's performance, because this is the kind of compassion and understanding he wants people to nurture from this story. The people who are rejected and shunned by society for looking or acting or being different are often those with the greatest sense of empathy for others. They have an ability it seems few people have to look deeper, to see what is really in someone's heart and soul, to judge them not by how they look on the outside but who they are within. This is a lesson we can all learn, and this film will take you on that journey. It certainly had a life-changing effect on my own emotions.