Not a whole lot of people are going to really enjoy “The Whale.” Director Darren Aronofsky’s new drama is the kind that leans into relentless agony, demoralization, rage — and mostly within the confines of a single living room, the space where we watch a 600-pound teacher deteriorate emotionally and physically.
Stifling is the word that comes to mind when thinking about the film. That, and brutal. Because there’s a resolve that emanates from Charlie (Brendan Fraser) the moment he appears on screen. He moves around, understandably, with great effort, not just because of his girth; he also seems exhausted by an emotional weight we learn more about as the story progresses.
Aronofsky sits us next to him on an old couch throughout most of “The Whale,” a film just shy of two hours long with a title that references a student essay panning “Moby Dick” that Charlie admires, one that captures some of his own feelings.
He’s all but shut himself off from the world. He teaches Zoom classes without the camera on. He engages in sex only by watching gay porn on his personal laptop. He drops his regular pizza guy some cash for him to pick up in the mailbox, so that he doesn’t have to spare him his appearance.
But the audience sees Charlie, and obviously he’s well aware of what he looks like, even if he never once glances in the mirror. His persistent wheezing and gasps serve as further confirmation that he’s not well. In fact, he only has days left to live.
So, he gorges on double meatball subs, boxes of pepperoni pizza and liters of Coca-Cola. It’s a painful, horrifying thing for an audience to bear witness to; not the excessive eating but the fact that he’s so depressed that he’s enabling his own death.
Mental health and self-harm are recurring themes in Aronofsky’s work. His characters often drive or are driven to the edges of their own life due to something intangible. For the ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) in “Black Swan,” it’s perfection. For each of the central addicts in “Requiem for a Dream,” the hardest of his films to watch, it’s to escape who or where they are.
For professional wrestler Randy (Mickey Rourke) in “The Wrestler,” it’s to achieve immortality. These characters are all brought to life by portrayals that are in equal parts heartbreaking, isolating and even off-putting at times. They’re about people you know, but can’t reach.
The same is true for Fraser’s interpretation of “The Whale,” which screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter adapts from his own play that was inspired by his own experiences with obesity. Much has been said and written about the fact that the actor wears a 300-pound fat suit in the role when an actually obese actor should have been prioritized to play Charlie.
It’s a fair argument, though Aronofsky has explained that he tried and couldn’t find the same quality and technicality in another actor that he did with Fraser. Wherever you stand on that, it’s not Fraser’s fat suit or obvious physical transformation that makes his performance so astounding. It’s his eyes.
They glisten with tears that never really flow, conveying years of pain, regret and dejection so viscerally that it’s hard not to have empathy for him, even when he doesn’t have it for himself. “The Whale” delicately paces out the details around this that are often too heavy for Charlie to utter himself.
His friend Liz (the equally terrific Hong Chau), a cantankerous nurse who regularly stops by to care for his health, is often the one to carry that burden. The two have a precious connection revealed later in the film in a scene that Chau floors, so I hesitate to give much away there in order for you to experience it as it’s meant to be seen: knowing nothing about it at all.
Though Charlie largely refuses hospital care, Liz still comes by and, even amid her own frustration with her friend, brings some of the most honest and fleetingly happy moments in the film as they watch TV together or when she tickles him playfully. And each of those milliseconds is a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise tautly contained story.
It is through Liz we learn that his male partner died by suicide years prior. In later exchanges, it’s also revealed that Charlie left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) to be with that love of his life. So, Charlie’s moments of joy, as he seems to consider them at least, have sometimes come at the expense of others he loves.
That’s a devastating perspective, one that is compounded by both Mary and Ellie’s bitterness when they reenter his life after eight years. With their separate reappearances come opportunities for Charlie to release some of the guilt he’s claimed and, potentially, rebuild these relationships.
As promising as that is, it’s also a miserable struggle to experience on screen. It encompasses rageful tears, dismay at Charlie’s changed appearance, teenage profanity and Mary’s desperate search for alcohol that answer any questions either Charlie or the audience might have had about whatever became of these two characters.
While Mary and Ellie’s entries further enlighten the story, and Morton and Sink give solid performances, it’s hard not to ponder what it would be like if they didn’t materialize on screen and disrupt Charlie’s intense solitude. Like, if they rather stayed voices on a strained phone call or people Charlie reflected on through conversations with Liz.
Their appearances pierce through something so singular and fragile that it almost seems irreparable.
But then again, they pivot the narrative toward something closer to redemption, which is also supremely fascinating here. Because it’s explored in many forms. Charlie gains the chance to forgive himself and Mary for her part in cutting Ellie out of his life. Despite Ellie’s hostility, Charlie also sees her beauty and wit, both of which are nearly impossible for the audience to discern without his own insight.
That’s not to say that Ellie lacks dimensionality or nuance as her own character. Rather, it takes Charlie for us to see what Ellie doesn’t show us. Just like it takes Liz for us to see more of Charlie. The fact that each character depends on another to highlight a humanity they can’t identify on their own, endows the movie with an undercurrent of love beneath its sour exterior.
Then there’s the idea of redemption through religious faith, which comes in the form of a duplicitous door-to-door Bible thumper named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who becomes an increasingly nagging presence for Charlie.
Part of that is because we come to learn of a threaded theme of religion and faith in Charlie’s narrative where it has always been more detrimental and betraying than hopeful, though it’s touted to be the opposite.
At the same, it is interesting to explore this through the context of Charlie — a still relatively young, obese, gay white man whose sexuality often conflicts with Christian messaging and yet he seeks it, or something else on its level, for validation before he departs.
That says a lot about his dependence on external morality now, when he feels he can no longer count on his own. There’s an end-of-the-rope feeling in this, particularly when Charlie tries to contend with Thomas’ increasingly questionable beliefs. But it also shows Charlie in a way few other parts of the film do: fighting for himself. Having agency.
It yields a kind of hope, however false or fruitless, upon which “The Whale” ultimately hinges. The movie might largely be remembered for being somber, an emotion that stays at the forefront of the narrative, but it’s optimism that buoys its ending. And you least expect it.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.