Darren Aronofsky has never been a subtle filmmaker. Generally, that's something I admire and appreciate about his work, but with The Whale, that penchant for big, bold choices becomes just another of the myriad reasons the film fails.
Based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted his play for the screen, The Whale centers on 600-pound college English writing instructor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) as he attempts to reconnect with his daughter, spends time with his caregiver friend, and humors a missionary. It's a film that desperately wants to be meaningful in not just one area but in many. In doing so, it trips over itself and comes out the other side hollow.
Failing To Justify a Cinematic Existence
Like any non-musical stage play to film adaptation, The Whale is in an uphill battle to justify that adaptation, and Aronofsky certainly does his best. But it's hard to tell what we're meant to get out of these choices. The film's 4:3 aspect ratio, combined with the suffocating way Charlie's apartment is shot and the tight framing on faces, attempts to bring us into an identification with Charlie.
But at the same time, the sound design when Charlie eats pushes every squelch of cheese, crunch of fried chicken, and mastication once the food is in his mouth to the fore. Beyond making the film a nightmare for viewers with misophonia, the decision to focus on these sounds makes Charlie an object of disgust to all viewers. The most prominent aspects of the film that are not possible in theater but possible in cinema essentially cancel one another out as far as tools to create empathy and disgust.
Beyond these directorial choices that impact how we feel about and for Charlie, the film flirts with horror imagery and sound. The silhouettes in the background of people walking by the closed window of Charlie's apartment and the often ominous and anxiety-inducing strings of the score feel ripped from a horror film. But this affinity to horror doubles down on the idea that we are viewing something grotesque (and some of the shots of Fraser's fat suit certainly don't help). Far from making the film feel more cinematic, the horror techniques highlight that there's no real tension here and that we're only locked down because this was once a play.
In the moments where the score does not bring horror to mind, its grandiose and overbearing insistence on its own emotional power is distracting and deadens any impact the moment might have. But the score is far from the only aspect of the film that is too sure of its importance.
Insistence On Meaning Is Not Meaning
The Whale deals with Charlie's failing health, his continuing grief over the death of his boyfriend years earlier, religion, and sexuality. It's full of avenues for real intellectual and emotional heft. But the film squanders its potential by attempting to do far too much. Albeit, the shallowness of the film's engagement with some of these issues makes one wonder whether focus would have made much of a difference.
Most disappointing is the film's treatment of religion and faith. In the first scene, Charlie is visited by door-to-door missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who helps Charlie calm down in a moment of panic. That interaction then grows into Thomas regularly visiting in an attempt to save Charlie's soul before he dies.
This plotline grows more interesting when Charlie's best friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) reveals that she lost her brother to suicide brought on by religious trauma. She conflicts with Thomas's desperate attempts to “save” Charlie, setting up a dynamic that could go somewhere very interesting. Instead, the film's theological interests fall to the most boring and simplistic level in its final moments. This flattening of a potentially exciting conflict may be intended as a rebuke of religion, but it feels like a failure to deliver on what was promised.
Despite the film's many thematic interests, it also runs out of steam at some point. In the film's final third, every conversation begins to feel repetitive and more like a note from the filmmakers that “look, we're engaging with this important topic” than anything else. That loss of momentum then makes the film's big finish (typical of Aronofsky) feel abrupt and unearned, even though every actor is deeply committed to making it work.
These Actors Deserve Better
The Whale has been billed as Brendan Fraser's comeback, and hopefully, that's true. But it's far more of an ensemble piece than that might lead audiences to believe. The film's center is Charlie, but numerous scenes don't involve him at all, allowing other characters to have one-on-one conversations. And while every actor in the film is doing great work, many of these conversations are unnecessary and draw attention away from Charlie's story.
Chau and Fraser are both incredible and hopefully will receive awards season attention. But the film is at its best when focusing on their relationship. That means conversations between Thomas and Charlie's daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) feel more like a distraction than the intellectually exciting dialogues they're clearly meant to be. It's disappointing because both young performers are giving their all to this overly self-conscious script. The Whale is a film full of good performances that feel out of place because nothing around is as good.
Overall The Whale feels like a parody of the idea that fat suits win Oscars. The fact that one of the most important objects of affection in the film is an essay about Moby Dick doesn't help.
The Whale will be in limited release beginning December 9 and nationwide December 21.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.
He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.