If there’s any well-known director who best knows how to let an audience revel in uncomfortable subject matter, it’s Darren Aronofsky – who delivered simultaneously one of the best and most uneasy movie-going experiences of my life with his 2017 film Mother. Even on top of that, his previous works like The Fountain or especially Requiem for a Dream are no cakewalks either – so, on the surface, a film like The Whale is seemingly right up his alley; as The Whale is an incredibly contained chamber-drama that focuses on a reclusive English teacher named Charlie (Brendan Fraser) who is suffering from severe obesity. As the film unravels, we see his relationship with his friend/nurse Liz (Hong Chau), a mysterious pizza delivery man who seemingly cares about his well being despite never seeing what Charlie looks like, a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and Charlie’s estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) – who he thinks he may have one last shot at redemption with.
It’s also worth noting that The Whale is an adaptation of a play by the same name by Samuel D. Hunter; and it makes all the sense in the world after you watch this film, as it almost feels like a stage play in its nature and structure. With the film being such a contained character-study on the character of Charlie, the film largely lies on the shoulders of Brendan Fraser’s performance – and luckily, he’s absolutely phenomenal in the film. Fraser has always been an immense talent and just a genuinely, easily likeable presence both on-and-off screen, so he immediately feels like a perfect fit for the sincerity, pain, and hope that Charlie embodies as a character. Even with everything you come in expecting from Fraser and that he delivers, I still believe he goes the extra mile and showcases things we’ve never seen from him as a performer here. He is truly, out-of-this-world phenomenal in the film and holds so much power with just his eyes and voice alone. Truly a performance for the ages, and feels like a rare instance where the hype for an acclaimed-performance was absolutely deserved.
The rest of the film, however, is a bit of a mixed-bag in terms of how much it deserves the hype and controversy surrounding it. On the one hand, I think this film is solid and works in the moments when it truly needs to succeed – I don’t think the film is entirely insensitive to that of obesity, but I can understand how others may be uncomfortable with its bluntness of the subject matter. The film also contains really strong direction from Aronofsky (which is a no-brainer at this point) and phenomenal supporting performances from Sink, Chau, and Simpkins. Where the film falters a bit is all the spinning plates it tries to balance in terms of characters and narrative threads, and I feel like it ultimately succumbs to a few of them by the end – as the first and most of the second act were so genuinely commanding and immersive due to their quietness and simplicity.
All of these individual storylines feel independently engaging, but as they collide with each other and Charlie can’t keep all of these characters apart, the film naturally becomes messier by default and loses a bit of its emotional-punch at the same-time. However, as I previously said, The Whale still succeeds in the moments it needs to; as there are just undeniably a handful of moments that are genuinely powerful and memorable. Fraser’s performance is also such a triumph that he carries the film to the finish-line, regardless of any misgivings I have with the script and structure at points. Where there was potential for The Whale to be one of the best films of the year, it simply settles with being a solid one with perhaps the best performance of the year instead. And you know what? I’ll take it.