'The Whale' Review
September 12, 2022
The Whale played at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release the film in theaters on December 09.
There’s a lot to be both worried about and interested in The Whale.
For starters, Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, while met with critical acclaim, has been the center of several think pieces on the use of “fat suits” within performance art. The use of suits has often been used to mock a certain character, almost making a spectacle out of their obesity. But there is some nuance to this issue, as the goal of using the suit on Brendan Fraser in The Whale is much more admirable than say Mike Meyers wearing it as Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movies, or Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. Fraser’s donning of heavy prosthetics and makeup adds to his character’s physical and emotional downfall and isn’t a cheap tactic to get the audience's attention. I’ll admit, it is nearly impossible to look away from him, especially when he stands up and makes his way around his dingy apartment, which has been rigged up to cater to his physical needs.
The Whale also marks the return of director Darren Aronofsky following a brief sabbatical after the extreme divisiveness of 2017’s Mother!, which included an F Cinemascore, a few undeserved Razzie nominations, and spots on a few critic’s (mine included) end-of-year Top-10 lists. Given Aronofsky’s other works Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, claiming that The Whale is his most emotionally devastating film yet is quite the statement. And like all his films, The Whale contains both theatricality and cinematic flair. Sometimes they clash together for scenes that feel artificial and emotionally manipulative, and sometimes they come together to create something revelatory, such as the final scene, where not a single dry eye was left in the theater.
Fraser stars as Charlie. He works as an online university English teacher to hide his appearance, doing so by claiming his webcam is always broken. He’s been holed up in his apartment for years now, eating himself away because of the depression he feels over the sudden death of his partner Alan. The only human contact he has is with his nurse Liz (Hong Chau), whose reminders of how his unhealthy lifestyle is rapidly dwindling his remaining years fall on deaf ears. Eventually, more people come into Charlie’s tragic life, including his seventeen-year-old daughter Ellie, now estranged from him after he left her and her mother for Alan. And there’s also Thomas, a member of a local church who wants to help Charlie find God before he perishes.
Along with last year’s No Sudden Move and his ongoing work in the cult series Doom Patrol, Fraser has entered a new renaissance period of his career. He may no longer be the blockbuster leading man he once was, but he’s proven to be game for whatever the material asks of him. The role of Charlie is a demanding one, forcing Fraser to be physically limited and emotionally open. He earns so much of our sympathy, beckoning for some basic respect for his situation and for compassion to overcome hate. He also is able to ably dodge some of the material’s excessiveness, which sometimes gets in the way of the younger performers of Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins.
There’s a profound amount of beauty within The Whale, often unlocked by Fraser’s mesmerizing performance and Rob Simonsen’s score. Aronofksy has continually been able to revitalize (Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream) and or solidify (Natalie Portman in Black Swan) the career of his leading stars, and he’s done so again with The Whale.