Well, damn. Watching The Whale is about as tough an experience as it gets, even for a veteran and fan of Darren Aronofsky. There’s no way around the ringer that this film puts you through, which has been a hallmark of Aronofsky’s career time and time again. The Whale pairs well with Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler, even if it looks very different. Once again, he also has an Oscar worthy performance under his belt, with this as much of an acting showcase as ever before. Playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s a memorable experience, but just know going in, the movie is going to challenge and test you.
The Whale shattered me, of course led by the work of Brendan Fraser. It truly is the performance of a career, which Aronofsky accentuates at every turn. It’s impossible not to be blown away by the work. Now, for a film so full of empathy, it also can come off as mean to some as well. I didn’t have that issue, but it’s a movie that will generate a range of reactions. The only emotion that everyone will share? Fraser’s pitch perfect work.
Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese and reclusive English professor, teaching his college course online, with the camera off. At 600 pounds, he’s largely confined to his couch, only really moving to open the door for take out, to use the bathroom, and to go to bed. One day, while struggling to breath, a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comes to the door. He wants to have Charlie go to the hospital, but he refuses, instead asking him to read him an essay on Moby Dick. Thomas is puzzled, but temporarily rushed off by Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie’s caretaker and only friend. Charlie lives a sad life, made sadder by the fact that he’s always mourning the death of his boyfriend Alan, which set him off on the destructive path he’s current on.
As his health further deteriorates, Charlie tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s an angry and hurt girl, only willing to spend time with her father when he offers to pay her. She aims to wound with her insults, while Charlie tells her how amazing she is. Liz and Thomas are still coming in and out (the latter is convinced that it was divine intervention that brought him to Charlie), and so too will Charlie’s ex and Ellie’s mother Mary (Samantha Morton). Everyone is mad at Charlie, but why is Charlie so unwilling to be helped? And what of that essay he keeps reading? If you don’t cry when you find out the answers, you’re made of stone.
Brendan Fraser deserves to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, full stop. With all that makeup and prosthetics on, it would be easy for him to be lost inside of it all, but somehow, that’s never once the cast. You feel every movement, be it a lean or a step. The purity of heart that Fraser gives to Charlie is stirring. You can’t take your eyes off of this performance. Hong Chau is phenomenal as well, and so too is Sadie Sink. Both are angry and hurt, but also frustrated with Charlie. They’re complex turns, with third act moments that will break your heart. They compel you just as much as Fraser. Samantha Morton and Ty Simpkins are solid as well, if a bit more in the background. The cast is very small, so the only other real player of any note is Sathya Sridharan. Fraser though, he’s so very much the real deal (so too is Chau and Sink), you’ll never feel anything lacking out of this cast. They leave it all on the table.
Director Darren Aronofsky purposefully keeps the adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter‘s play (which Hunter adapted himself) as stagey as possible. Aronofsky’s testament to empathy and redemption shatters you, before putting you back together. To do so, you need to be in tight with Charlie and his small circle. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique is up close on Fraser’s face, taking in how he takes his abuse. The home it all takes place in is dark, and kept dark, until light finally is able to shine through. The score by Rob Simonsen is also very much on point, knowing exactly when to come in strong for maximum emotional effectiveness. Aronofsky is a master, so his gambit easily pays off, even if it’s a bit jarring at the start.
The Whale devastated me. A highlight of TIFF, this is sure to be an awards player and conversation starter. The crowds at Toronto were unanimous in their praise for Brendan Fraser, so expect to hear that throughout the season. The film itself is more divisive, understandably so, but for me, it was a powerful experience. Your mileage may vary, but I was enraptured by this tale.