A morbidly obese shut-in processes what may be his final days on Earth in The Whale, a stark and claustrophobic new drama from director Darren Aronofsky that premieres in Prague cinemas this weekend.
Like the director’s Requiem for a Dream or The Wrestler, this unflinching portrayal of a life lost to addiction may be a tough sit for some, but Brendan Fraser’s unflinching and remarkably poignant performance add an unexpected ray of hope.
The Whale stars Fraser as Charlie, a morbidly obese shut-in who has succumbed to an eating addiction. In one of the film’s first scenes, he nearly has a heart attack after masturbating to gay pornography; a passing Christian missionary (Ty Simpkins) who hears his moans is able to calm him down by reciting an eighth-grade essay.
Charlie is no hero, that’s for sure. He left his family, including young daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), in order to live with his gay lover Alan; in the wake of Alan’s suicide due to religious guilt, Charlie has grown despondent and given in to binge eating. Alan’s sister Liz (Hong Chau) now looks after Charlie, but isn’t able to get him to go to the hospital.
Charlie seems to have a sense of self-awareness about his condition, and acceptance of his fate. He hides himself from his onlines student, claiming his webcam is broken, not necessarily out of embarrassment, but out of compassion; he wants to shield them from having to see the monster he has become.
When Ellie reappears in Charlie’s life after some time, he takes the opportunity to try to connect with her, knowing he isn’t likely to get another chance. Despite the downbeat nature of Charlie’s condition, he approaches every moment he has with a genuine sense of appreciation and hope — not for himself, but for humanity. He may have given up on himself, but he hasn’t given up on others.
Fraser’s unexpectedly warm and subtle performance carries The Whale, and the actor is so empathetic in the role that he transcends the controversial practical effects that turn him into an oversized physical presence. Both the actor and his makeup and hairstyling team have been nominated for Academy Awards, and are equally deserving of a win in creating one of 2022’s most unforgettable characters.
But Fraser isn’t alone in The Whale. Chau is equally riveting in the difficult role of Charlie’s only friend, who may not be helping him in spite of her best efforts. And Samantha Morton is deeply sympathetic as Charlie’s ex-wife and a kindred spirit, herself suffering from alcohol addiction. Morton appears in a single scene here and the recent She Said, and just about steals both movies.
The entirety of The Whale takes place in Charlie’s apartment, with most of the film unfolding as he sits on the living room couch. It’s dark and oppressive, with rays of light emanating every time a character opens the front door only briefly glimpsed. The production design feels all-too lived-in.
The Whale is not the carnival freak show that some may take it to be, but instead a movie of surprising depth that offers a glimmer of hope about the human condition in all of its guises. While the experience of watching the movie is not necessarily a pleasant one, it’s a quietly devastating journey that leaves a lasting impact.