Released 2022. Director: Darren Aronofsky
CHARLIE TEACHES CREATIVE WRITING AT A UNIVERSITY but his students never see him. His classes are conducted online, in real time, and while the students appear on screen via video link, Charlie always claims his webcam is not working. The truth is Charlie doesn’t want anyone to see what he looks like because he knows too well people are judged by their appearance. The man is morbidly obese and his health is in such a dire state Charlie doesn’t have long to live and he knows it.
A character like Charlie is not the norm in movies. An extra large person on screen is often the butt of a joke and I don't think I need to name the movie titles here. One rare instance I can think of where an overweight protagonist is portrayed as a regular human being and not for crude humour is Gabrielle Sidebe in Precious.
Charlie lives alone, never leaves home, and doesn't open the door until he's sure the pizza delivery guy is gone. We see how Charlie struggles as he moves around with a walker, every step is an effort that sucks the breath out of him. Beyond the mess we also see shelves of books and a hint of an ordered life in the past.
His friend Liz, who works as a nurse, drops in to check on him regularly. She picks up after him, cleans up gunk and spillage while begrudging him for not looking after himself. Liz is visibly tired and stretched but she clearly cares for Charlie.
The Whale is a serious movie and Charlie’s appearance and condition are meant to shock us. The script, written by Samuel D. Hunter based on his own play, wants to address several big issues such as prejudice, compassion, personal and parental responsibility, family ties, bereavement, unresolved conflicts and maybe a few more. It’s no wonder the movie feels heavier as it proceeds, with director Darren Aronofsky absolutely resisting to loosen a tight grip on the plodding narrative. You feel like you’re sitting in an airless room, which in a way is true, as The Whale takes place almost entirely inside Charlie’s small and unkempt apartment.
Hunter's script is structured in a very overt way to drop surprises at regular intervals. The character study of Charlie feels blatantly constructed and the disclosure of information timed for effect. Why is Charlie’s daughter Ellie so angry with him? What happened to Charlie’s partner Alan and what is their tie to the New Life Church, which features prominently in the story? Even the insistent and misguided missionary boy Thomas who keeps coming back trying to convert Charlie gets his own story tangled with Charlie’s. And who really is Liz and how is she connected to Charlie?
Hong Chau delivers more than a standard supporting role with her searing portrayal of Liz. You can hear the mix of bitterness and kindness in her voice, and you could almost feel the weight of her disappointment and the sense that her friendship has been exploited when she finds out that Charlie has been lying about not having money for treatment.
But I’m sure the thing about The Whale that’ll stick most in memory is Brendan Fraser’s performance. His portrayal of Charlie is one that’s guaranteed to grab attention, and rightly so. As a man who’s let himself go, burdened by unresolved issues compounded by grief, Charlie just wants to die, and comes close a couple of times, harrowing experience for the people who happen to be around.
Brendan nails the requirements of a big dramatic role with just the right amount of pathos without over-milking our sympathy. You might even shed a tear at a calculated moment when Charlie sobs about getting one thing right in his life.
That one thing is to reconcile with his estranged 15-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Despite always fuming with her dad, Ellie comes over every day to sulk and bemoan the man, because deep down she wants to both provoke him and know him. It must also be said that Charlie promises to give her all his money when he’s dead, which could be an incentive. Charlie even agrees to help Ellie by writing her English essay.
This business about Ellie and her essay has a peculiar function in the story. Back in her eighth grade, Ellie wrote a book review about Moby Dick for school and Charlie has been holding on to that essay ever since. Whenever he’s near death, reading Ellie’s words would bring him back, almost like a defribilator.
Herman Melville’s classic tale about one man’s obsessive hunt for a great whale is itself very obviously referenced in the movie’s title, which then points to the massive weight of the protagonist. While in real life a mammal like a whale swims with grace, the movie runs aground and beaches itself right at the end.
Charlie tells his online students to be true and honest in their writing. In the same spirit, he finally turns on his camera and reveals himself, then in a dramatic flourish, flings the laptop across the room and smashing it. This moment reinforces The Whale as a preachy message movie and doesn't even try to be subtle about it.
I won't describe to you how the movie ends. I can only guess if Aronofsky has intended it this way but the attempt to give The Whale an uplifting crescendo in its final moment ends up being a clumsy and chaotically edited bit of a mess.
Top marks to Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau, wish I could say the same for the movie as a whole.
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