Since the start of his career, Darren Aronofsky has been unafraid of making moviegoers uncomfortable. Whether it’s detailing the depths of drug addiction in Requiem for a Dream, showing the brutality of wrestling in The Wrestler, or making a brutal environmental allegory in Mother!, Aronofsky often goes to extremes to tell his stories.
The Whale fits right in with his previous works, as it focuses on Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese man who is unable to leave his apartment in an unnamed town in Idaho. Charlie works from home as a remote English professor, and is cared for by his friend Liz (Hong Chau), who brings him food and checks his health every time she visits.
Charlie is also visited by Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for a church called New Life, and Ellie (Sadie Sink), his daughter from a failed marriage that ended when Charlie left his wife for a man. Each person who enters the apartment impacts Charlie’s life in a different way, but the reality of his health situation may mean that there is little they can do to actually help him.
Directed by Aronofsky but written by Samuel D. Hunter (who adapted his own play), the film will be tough to watch for many. Aronofsky does not shy away from the reality of Charlie’s life in the slightest, including his need to use a walker to get around, his continued eating of very unhealthy food, and showing Charlie with his shirt off or naked on multiple occasions, giving a full glimpse at the level of his obesity.
But even as we’re witness to the worst part of Charlie’s life, the film makes sure to show that he’s much more than just his body. As seen with his Zoom interactions with his students or his conversations with Liz, Thomas, and Ellie, Charlie gives real thought to academics and the world around him. His control in those areas makes it even sadder that he is unable to rein in his personal impulses.
There’s an easy joke to be made about the title of The Whale, but it goes deeper than just the obvious comparison. From the start of the film, Charlie is shown to be obsessed with one particular essay about Moby Dick, a metaphor that extends to more than his appearance. His musings on that essay and writing in general makes him a truly empathetic character, not just one who garners pity or disgust.
While the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of Charlie’s dark apartment, Aronofsky uses plenty of different viewpoints and angles to keep it from becoming too claustrophobic. Keeping the film in one area also allows the details of Charlie’s life to be fully grasped, showing a lot of sad things, but others that are oddly hopeful.
Fraser’s performance is, in a word, astonishing. Laden with who knows how many pounds of seamless prosthetics, he makes you feel every inch of Charlie’s physical and mental suffering. The erstwhile star of The Mummy series has rarely been in consideration for acting awards, but he deserves to be at the top of the list for Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards. He’s aided by strong performances from Chau, Sink, Simpkins, and, in a small role, Samantha Morton.
While The Whale makes for distressing viewing at times, it is balanced out by compassionate storytelling and well-rounded characters, making this one of Aronofsky’s most relatable films. The filmmaking and Fraser’s appearance and performance make it impossible to look away.
The Whale is now playing in theaters.