Darren Aronofsky disguises voyeurism as empathy in The Whale. The film brings out the worst tendencies in the Academy Award-nominated director. The Whale is cruel towards its underdeveloped protagonist in a film packed with allegory that audiences expect from Aronofsky.
*This review contains spoilers for The Whale. Trigger warning for eating disorders and binge eating.*
The Whale may be marketed as an empathetic film, but the film itself feels the opposite. The film stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, an English teacher who is suffering from a severe eating disorder following his partner’s tragic death years earlier. Charlie has coped with the loss of his partner by binge-eating and develops shame-based agoraphobia. He teaches English online via a Zoom-like platform where his video is turned off, leaving his appearance a black square in a sea of young faces, mimicking his offline social exile. Charlie has been ostracized by his ex-wife and their daughter following his coming out.
The only real human interaction Charlie has on a regular basis is with Liz (Hong Chau), who initially appears to stop in to monitor his health and physical well-being. After noting that his blood pressure has skyrocketed to 238/134, Liz pleads with Charlie to seek professional treatment or he’ll be dead by the weekend. Charlie insists he cannot afford hospitalization due to his lack of health insurance, essentially choosing a form of suicide.
The Whale is presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio that crams Charlie into the frame and guarantees that the audience can’t ignore the amount of space he takes up in the world. Charlie never leaves his apartment over the course of the film. The audience, just like Charlie, is confined to his home, only ever going to the front porch of his apartment for visibility into the outside world. The scenes of Charlie going to different rooms in his apartment are shot in a manner that makes the film feel as if we’re watching a horror film. There is no empathy for Charlie’s struggle the way the camera follows him from the comfort of the couch to the bathroom or bedroom. With Aronofsky’s manic camerawork, Matthew Libatique’s dark cinematography, and Rob Simonsen’s blaring score in the background, our protagonist is displayed for the audience to gawk at versus feel compassion for.
Aronofsky and Hunter throughout the film are reminding the audience that Charlie is a good man and the errors of his past, whether his own doing or brought on by outsiders, will not matter in his final days that we’re watching unfold. While Fraser does the most he can with the material, there’s no life to his performance outside his eyes. Charlie is played with empty glances and voice-cracking delivery of poorly written dialogue to manipulate the audience to feel empathy for him. He is underwritten, underdeveloped, and feels unreal in the real world within a film begging to be authentic.
The audience learns as Liz confides in a religious door-to-door Bible pusher, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), that Charlie left his wife and daughter for his partner, who happens to be Liz’s brother, and he later committed suicide after a tough relationship with religion. The film doesn’t feel interested in Charlie’s sexuality, but his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), weaponizes his queerness against him anytime she is on screen. Charlie’s sexuality is not part of the story but is used against him throughout the film. The opening scene shows him masturbating to gay porn and leading to a heart attack and later Charlie attempts to get a rise out of Thomas by using his sexuality as a negative, “unfaithful” aspect of himself. The film aggressively tries to assure the audience it is not judging Charlie for anything, yet the entire film serves to show him as a burden to everyone around him. The camera wallows as it follows him and shows Charlie in a manner that doesn’t feel it’s showing empathy towards him but wanting to spark a polarizing response from the audience to his appearance.
Charlie’s behaviors throughout the film are in direct contrast to the metaphors the material is trying to reference. The film’s title, The Whale, is touted as not in response to its protagonist size, but in reference to ‘Moby-Dick’ which is utilized throughout the film. The title could also be acquainted to the biblical story of ‘Jonah and the Whale.’ While in all of these examples, the way Charlie is portrayed makes him more aligned with the whale in each story. He is the whale to each character’s Jonah, a being sent by God to protect them from themselves in the face of their own misgivings. Charlie is the Moby-Dick to each character’s Ahab, each one eager for his life to mean something more than what it truly does. While typically biblical allegories work with Aronofsky, it falls flat here and feels manipulative.
The film was written by Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the play the film is adapted from and while Hunter, who struggled with a food addiction, can relate to many aspects of the film from his relationship with Christianity to fatherhood to his sexuality, Aronofsky, as far we know, cannot make these connections. While that does not completely rule him out as a match for the material, it does (apparently) make him less empathetic towards the subject matter, which The Whale desperately needed.
The Whale is redundant at times, aggressively showing Charlie’s mistreatment, abuse, and addictions in a cruel, overwhelming manner over and over throughout the film. While this is intentional, it makes for an exhausting experience. The film is predictable, manipulative, and uses Charlie’s weight as a tool for misery with no empathy.
Likely: Best Lead Actor (Brendan Fraser), Best Make-up/Hairstyling
Should be Considered: Best Supporting Actress (Hong Chau)
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky
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