“The Whale” It features the elements that have, in one way or another, defined Darren Aronofsky’s career: self-destruction, damaged people, biblical obsession, tension, the return of a great actor, and a direction that will inevitably be divisive.
Adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter, “The Whale” follows, over five days, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a man with morbid obesity, a condition that gradually developed after the suicide of his boyfriend. Alan. The man never leaves his apartment in Idaho, he works as a virtual English teacher and his only real contact with the outside world is through Liz (Hong Chau), his best friend and nurse who, in addition to bringing him junk food, shares a very deep connection. important with him.
Charlie weighs more than 250 kg, needs a walker to walk and something as simple as a laugh sends him into coughing fits. He has a blood pressure of 238 over 134 and it is evident that his days are numbered. After a near-death experience, Charlie tries to reconnect with her daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a rebellious and rude teenager who hates him for abandoning her, and her mother Mary (Samantha Morton), during their childhood to escape with Alan.
This is the story of an optimistic father plagued by guilt who tries to open his wounds to heal them. Before he dies, he wants to prove that his life was worthwhile and do something good for his wicked daughter, who only agrees to visit him in exchange for $120,000. “The Whale” plays with notions of salvation and the need to care for others: Charlie wants to save Ellie and make her understand how smart she is, but at the same time we have the character of Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary from a cult called New Life who develops an obsession with saving Charlie through his spiritual insights. Liz, in turn, takes care of, accompanies and begs Charlie to go to the hospital, but she also brings all of her junk food; it is a fascinating toxic relationship that plays with the concept of “salvation”.
To carry out this complex character study, Aronofsky creates an interweaving of themes: guilt, obesity, homosexuality, redemption, spirituality, salvation, religion, compassion and parental abandonment. Not all of them come out strong but it’s fascinating how the director manages to tie all these themes together using a handful of characters and a single setting.
The character of Thomas seems to exist only to insert, with little subtlety, religious ideas into the narrative, however a powerful scene emerges from him where Charlie determinedly defends his love for Alan. Here, Aronofsky tackles misunderstandings of the Bible and hypocritical ideologies that fail to even grasp the book’s key concept: love. But in addition, this moment stands out for the interesting contrast between Charlie’s fierce resolve in relation to love and his unwillingness to control his eating habits.
But we are talking about Aronofsky so of course there is going to be controversy and division. The movie wants you to see beyond Charlie’s bulk to find his kindness and compassion. However, there is a certain cruelty in portraying the protagonist’s obesity, particularly during the eating scenes. Aronofsky directs Fraser devouring fried chicken, pizza and sandwiches as if it were a horror movie: he enhances the wet sound of Charlie’s mouth chewing, uses haunting music and slow push in. In an effort to point out how cruel society is often towards obesity, Aronofsky’s voyeuristic gaze feels irresponsible because it reduces a complex condition to a grotesque spectacle and a purely moral and emotional issue suggesting that all experiences with obesity start from the same point (depression, in Charlie’s case), when, of course, there may be many elements involved.
Yet “The Whale” works because, even in these moments of humiliation, Brendan Fraser’s performance brims with emotion. At first it seems like another Hollywood maximalist performance powered by globs of makeup and prosthetics, but Fraser pushes past all those aesthetic barriers to deliver compelling, moving, and understated work; limited in movement, the actor successfully conveys warmth, compassion, sadness and pain using his eyes and facial expressions. Fraser has spoken about his traumatic experiences and issues related to weight gain, and so it’s no surprise that his empathy and respect for the character of Charlie always feels authentic.
Although different in nature, Hong Chau’s (“Show Up”) reaches the same levels of excellence as Fraser’s, with whom she shares enormous chemistry. Her scenes carry a powerful emotional charge and the performances convey the pain of their characters without the need for exposition. The themes of personal abandonment are largely made effective by a cruel and effective performance from Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things”), while, in a key scene, Samantha Morton (“The Walking Dead”) makes her mark with a job of the highest quality.
In the end, the gorodophobic elements and an irregular script that has problems developing the themes it proposes are not enough to suffocate an excellent Brendan Fraser who, with the support of a very strong cast, makes “The Whale” a captivating experience where it is impossible feel indifference.
“The Whale” was the inaugural film of the Los Cabos International Film Festival 2022.