Controversy has swirled around “The Whale” for months leading up to its theatrical release, with some criticizing the film for casting Brendan Fraser and not an obese actor in the role of a 600-pound recluse and others saying it perpetuates stereotypes of overweight people.
With all great respect to those who have voiced those concerns, I couldn’t disagree more. I found Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the stage work by Samuel D. Hunter (who wrote the screenplay) to be an empathetic, haunting, beautiful, heartbreakingly moving story of a broken man in the throes of addiction who has a huge heart and believes people can be really and truly good — but has landed in a place in his own life where he lacks the energy and the will to remain in this world.
To be sure, “The Whale” can be a difficult watch, as is the case with Aronofsky’s films of excess and psychological trauma such as “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan,” but to me it never came across as uncaring or exploitative. (As for the use of prosthetics and CGI: Actors have always utilized makeup, wigs, elaborate costumes, padded suits and in more recent years special effects to transform themselves and become one with their characters. It’s an essential part of the craft.)
Fraser’s Charlie is an enormous mountain of a man with thinning hair, sympathetic eyes and an expression that often makes it look as if he’s just received some sad news. Charlie has practically become one with the sofa in the living room of his dark, second-floor apartment in Idaho, where he teaches expository writing to online college students via his laptop, always keeping his own video off and telling his class the camera on his computer is broken.
It’s been years since Charlie has ventured into the outside world, as he self-medicates with sessions of frantic binge-eating of pizzas and fried chicken and meatball subs and chocolate — but he’s hardly shut off from the outside world. Over the course of one week, there’s a revolving door of visits from three individuals: his friend and caregiver Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who alternates between scolding Charlie for his self-destructive habits and comforting him with hugs and more food; a young man named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), an inexperienced missionary from the New Life Church who becomes hell-bent on saving Charlie, though Charlie has no interest in being saved, and Charlie’s estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), an angry and seemingly horrible girl who only agrees to visit him now because he’s literally going to pay her for her time.
We learn that after Charlie left Ellie’s mother Mary (Samantha Morton) for a young man nearly a decade ago, Mary got full custody and completely cut off Charlie from Ellie. We learn Charlie is in a state of congestive heart failure and likely will be dead in a week if he doesn’t go to the hospital, yet Charlie refuses. We learn a great number of other things about Charlie, and Liz, and that persistent and mysterious missionary named Thomas — and when Mary storms in late in the proceedings, grabs a bottle from a cabinet, starts drinking and lays into Charlie, we learn more about their past as well. In every one of these cases,Hunter’s brilliant screenplay takes us in directions we might not expect and adds layers of insight into each character and what motivates them.
All the while, we feel this tremendous affection for Charlie and great sadness for him — and we share Liz’s frustrations with him, and we want to scream at him to fight for himself. If Charlie truly believes people are capable of such great generosity of heart, if he means what he says when he tells the hateful Ellie she’s an amazing person, why doesn’t he want to stick around to see Ellie flourish, why does he seem so resigned to his fate and so unwilling to do anything about it?
That’s the thing of it. Charlie believes he has reached the point of no return. All he wants to do is hear a certain essay about “Moby Dick” that was written long ago and carries great meaning to him — to hear that essay one last time, and to perhaps achieve some sort of resolution with Ellie and to make her see that beneath her cruelty and her abrasiveness, she truly is amazing, and he simply wasn’t equipped to be her father all these years ago.
Remaining faithful to the play, “The Whale” takes place almost entirely inside Charlie’s apartment, save for a few brief exterior shots, and yet thanks to director Aronofsky, the fluid cinematography by Matthew Libatique and the exquisite production design, the film never feels static or stagey. Certain hallways and rooms and secrets reveal themselves as we go along. Everyone in the small ensemble is outstanding, with Hong Chau deserving supporting actress consideration for her memorable portrayal of Liz, a character of such depth she could have a movie of her own.
Front and center, of course, is Brendan Fraser, who proved he could be a commercial star in mainstream adventures such as “George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and demonstrated he could be a fine actor in films such as “Gods and Monsters” and “Crash,” and now delivers the finest work of his career. Fraser becomes Charlie and infuses him with intelligence, pathos, humor and heart. It is one of the best performances of the year in one of the best movies of the year.