At Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, three films were big winners. Everything Everywhere All at Once swept many of the most prestigious awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and three of the four acting awards – while All Quiet on the Western Front dominated the below-the-line categories, in addition to winning Best International Feature.
The only other film to take home multiple awards was the controversial The Whale. Because of its somewhat limited release to theaters and the fact that it still costs $19.99 to rent on VOD platforms, many still have not seen Darren Aronofsky’s latest film. There are also those who purposefully avoided the film after reading more about its subject matter. So now that it’s an Oscar-winner (and one of the biggest of the night), should you watch it?
The Whale is a psychological drama written by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his 2012 play. It stars Brendan Fraser as a reclusive teacher named Charlie, who has a contentious relationship with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) and ex-wife (Samantha Morton). He also has a complicated bond with his best (and only) friend Liz (Hong Chau), who attempts to care for him as his health issues worsen due to his morbid obesity.
In her review for Oscars Central, Kenzie Vanunu wrote, “The Whale is cruel towards its underdeveloped protagonist in a film packed with allegory that audiences expect from Aronofsky.” While some loved the acting in the film (and Chau is undeniably great), others pointed out the clumsy script and framing that accentuates Charlie’s large size in a grotesque manner.
When I first saw The Whale at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, I received a handful of messages from critics and friends wondering about the film. One friend asked, “Umm how triggering is it? For like disorder eating/body stuff,” and that was the gist of all of the messages.
As someone who has struggled with disordered eating in the past, I was not prepared for The Whale. Having little warning because it was not widely seen before I attended a screening, I wasn’t expecting how badly the film would trigger a return to my former mindset towards food and my body. For three to four weeks after seeing the film, I had to work hard to get my mind back to a healthy place.
Largely these negative feelings were brought on by how Charlie is framed throughout the film. In particular, there are scenes of him binge eating in which the camera and the acting purposefully highlight how gross his habits are. Beyond the fact that the title refers to the main character as a whale (despite what those involved with the film said over the course of its press tour, the speeches at the Oscars made it clear that it does refer to him), the film seems to voyeuristically take glee in how large Charlie is.
In her piece for The Guardian, Lindy West expressed her belief that The Whale is actively harmful representation for those who are overweight. She states:
The Whale is not a real fat person telling their own raw story with all the complexities and contradictions of lived experience. Charlie is a fictional character created by a thin person, a fantasy of fat squalor, a confirmation that we “do this” to ourselves: that we gorge buckets of chicken like mindless beasts, that we never see the world, never let the sun warm our bodies, never step into the sea, never make art, never feel human touch, never truly live. Portrayals like this steal from us in two directions: we are denied both the freedom to enjoy food and to have complicated relationships with it. I suppose my criticism boils down to this: a fat person, even one with a life identical to Charlie’s, could never have made The Whale. It is fundamentally not of us and therefore incurably untrue.
Fraser took home the award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie and as a recognition of his comeback to Hollywood. While he wouldn’t be my personal choice over fellow nominees Colin Farrell (for The Banshees of Inisherin) or Paul Mescal (for Aftersun), his Oscar win is not the one that I find genuinely offensive. However, awarding the film for Best Makeup & Hairstyling when the only significant work in the film is making Fraser look fat feels particularly offensive.
The other nominees (The Batman, All Quiet on the Western Front, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Elvis) all featured impressive work across many characters in makeup and hairstyling, while the work in The Whale is concentrated on just the character of Charlie’s body. This means that the award was given purely for creating the body that the entire film highlights as being horrific.
In general, I don’t believe in censoring art, but there are limits. Obviously, I think that anything that amounts to hate speech should be viewed with heavy warnings. And I think that anything that could cause psychological or even physical harm to those watching should be viewed with caution – or audiences should be able to make an informed decision not to watch.
Thus, I urge anyone considering watching The Whale – especially those who have struggled with disordered eating in the past – to be aware of the possible effects that the film could have and not walk into it blindly.