How we seek forgiveness for our actions is important to understanding our moral character. Do we feel like we must bribe those we’ve offended into forgiveness? Or is there a genuine, thoughtful way to mend our fences? Seeking forgiveness seems to be the heart of The Whale, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky. However, digging a little deeper, it’s not just that we ask for someone to forgive us, but the methods by which we do. Showcasing a transformative performance from Brendan Fraser, The Whale seeks to ask these questions. Unfortunately, beyond Fraser, there’s little to enjoy in the slog.
Charlie (Fraser) weighs more than six hundred pounds after the death of his lover Alan. As he suffers from heart failure, his friend Liz (Hong Chau) keeps him alive. At the same time, a young missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) begins checking on Charlie from time to time. As Charlie reckons with his impending death, he attempts to reengage his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
There have been many great performances lost in the scuttle of poor direction. Sadly it appears that Fraser, a 90’s matinee idol, may suffer that same fate. The comeback actor of 2022 lifts Aronofsky’s The Whale on his shoulders and does everything he can to keep the melodrama afloat. Fraser embodies the character with a genuine kindness that makes it easy to ignore the hurt he’s caused to those around him. This speaks more to the actor’s power than it does to the material, and Fraser owns your attention throughout The Whale.
Fraser comes to the role with his own baggage. His role as a staple in blockbuster films (The Mummy) and critical darlings (Gods and Monsters) made Fraser an endearing presence on the big screen. However, it was soon upended. Fraser was famously blackballed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after he made claims of sexual impropriety by its former president. He suffered back injuries on the sets for his action films. Without this to fall back on, Fraser struggled to put together a string of hits, despite dominating the box office throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Aronofsky plays into our relationship with Fraser creatively, ultimately providing The Whale with some juice. Simultaneously, Aronofsky provides a window into his soulful eyes, which emanate kindness. There’s something incredibly genuine about the way that Fraser looks at those around him, and this becomes the key to unlocking The Whale as it struggles with its other characters. Charlie may not be the best man (in fact, he seems to see the world as a series of transactions), but Fraser’s inherent likability allows us to hope for his redemption.
Meanwhile, Aronofsky seems poised to scale back as much as possible. After disappointing returns on Noah and mother! left him without critical support, grounding himself in a human connection drama makes sense. However, part of Aronofsky’s appeal has always been his ability to craft genuine spectacle through melodrama. Say what you will about mother!, but it was a unique experience that pushed its audience. In The Whale, he comes across as inert.
There’s little he can explore visually besides Fraser’s enormous fat-suited body, leading directly to criticisms of fat-phobia. Nothing makes this more apparent than the first time Aronofsky has Charlie stand. As the camera tilts to showcase his massive frame and size, you can nearly hear the characters gasp. Whether you buy into this argument is almost beside the point. There’s very little else for us to look at as an audience. The story’s origins as a stage play further ground us in the house. Rather than take the opportunity to explore moments of Charlie’s life, we are grounded in the dark and grimy house.
Aronofsky wishes us to experience the loneliness of Charlie’s world, the director seems to forget the world since 2020. The audience already relates to Charlie, as the last three years have left us all too familiar with the impacts of isolation. The fear of the unknown beyond our door is familiar. Rather than saying something new with this aspect, we are grounded within a claustrophobic world. This seems especially ill-conceived because Charlie is continually celebrated for his prowess as a writer. This idea might have allowed him to transcend the four walls of his existence.
Fraser’s recent turns have demanded him to showcase physicality, and Aronofsky uses this to his advantage. Fraser towers above other characters, and his frame makes him feel larger than life. However, putting Fraser in a garish fat suit feels ill-advised. Not only does it limit his actual movement, but it devolves into caricature. The belly is so large that it sags in unnatural ways. However, to ensure you do not miss his gluttony, Charlie nearly chokes to death on a meatball sub. This only comes after another incident where he eats two Three Muskateers bars, each in nearly a single bite.
These aspects are where Aronofsky could easily have shied away from tropes for large men and still crafted a point. Instead, he reminds us five or six times about how much food Fraser can eat. The other problem facing The Whale is that Aronofsky struggles to craft the other characters through any other lens. In some way, each character’s reactions to the world relate directly to Charlie’s weight. Chau and Simpkins do their best to create fully fleshed-out characters. However, the screenplay refuses to let them exist without addressing Charlie and his health. If there was a Bechdel test for obesity, The Whale would fail in nearly every scene and conversation.
Simply put, The Whale features an excellent performance in a very frustrating film. As the rest of the cast struggles to establish their characters, Aronofsky fails to bring the story to life. Boring and frustrating, The Whale is not destined to have a long legacy unless Fraser truly relaunches his career. Fingers crossed because, if nothing else, Fraser proved his value as a star and centerpiece of a film.