[Originally published for Geek Vibes Nation’s coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.]
The Whale will rip you to shreds.
If you’re familiar with Darren Aronofsky’s work, you know that it is by design. His work frequently explores the emotional, spiritual, and physical dimensions of the grotesque, leading you down visceral and perhaps disturbing paths. Emotional devastation is par for the course; it’s virtually guaranteed.
It’s different, though, when the target of such devastation is Brendan Fraser.
In The Whale, Fraser plays Charlie, a 600-pound online writing instructor whose health is rapidly deteriorating. Charlie isolates himself in his apartment, with his nurse Liz (Hong Chau) as his only connection to the outside world. Knowing that he has little time left, Charlie reaches out to his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) to connect after he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton) for a man. Ellie is hostile to the point of cruelty, but Charlie is steadfast in his resolve. In his interactions with Ellie, Liz, and a traveling missionary (Ty Simpkins), Charlie spends the twilight of his life trying to heal seemingly insurmountable pain and loss.
Charlie’s journey is a tortuous one. The Whale is as psychologically relentless as Darren Aronofsky has ever been, if not as metaphorical. He takes a more straightforward approach to Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay, which makes sense given its emotionally brutal material. Charlie is an excessively broken man, desperate for human connection but utterly terrified of it. He’s haunted by his past mistakes, his lost love, and the ailments borne from his binge eating. Despite his overwhelming trauma, he still seeks one last glimmer of light with Ellie.
If only Ellie weren’t an aggressively terrible person. Even within the context of her own trauma, her behavior, especially with Charlie, borders on sociopathy. Her abuse is made worse by his unwaveringly optimistic responses. You want better for him. You want him to take Liz and his ex-wife’s advice and leave Ellie alone. But he can’t and won’t. Charlie’s yearning for Ellie and what she represents to him is devastating.
The Whale’s embrace of soul-razing pain doesn’t end there. Charlie and Liz’s relationship is beautifully complex, with surprising narrative dimensions beyond nurse and patient. They provide the film with its few light spots but also heighten its tragedy, mainly how Charlie isn’t the only sufferer. The Whale does falter in its religious commentary. It aims for poignancy and resonance with Charlie’s struggles, but too many ideas muddle it.
With so much on the page, Aronofsky tempers his penchant for visual flourishes. Instead, he enhances the script’s emotional heft. He is unsparing in his capture of Charlie’s fragile, fraught existence. He often keeps the camera close to communicate the severity. Aronofsky ensures you can’t ignore or deny Charlie, not the sores on his back nor the rattle of his lungs. As brutal as it looks, the camera never feels disrespectful or exploitative of Charlie. All it does is highlight its forceful inevitability and bone-deep sadness.
When Aronofsky does indulge himself, it’s to showcase The Whale’s greatest asset: Brendan Fraser’s eyes. Fraser exudes incredible warmth and kindness through his eyes, looking with innocence, expectation, hesitancy, and fear. Here, his gaze is particularly potent against a lifetime of grief and self-loathing and the reality that you don’t have much time left. Fraser communicates pages of feeling without saying a word, just with a look. If that were the extent of his performance, it would still be a marvel. And yet, Fraser deploys every cell in his body in conveying Charlie’s web of regrets and hopes. He leaves his soul on the screen, and his fearlessness results in the year’s best performance, without contest.
Brendan Fraser’s life-changing portrayal does require help, and the rest of The Whale’s cast exceeds the task. Hong Chau is brilliant as Liz, sketching a searing portrait of compassion, complicity, and fierce protection of someone who desperately needs it. You can feel Liz’s guilt and frustration coming off of her in waves. Sadie Sink has the unenviable job of playing an execrable character, and it’s a testament to her abilities that she plays detestable so well without sliding into caricature. Although her screen time is brief, Samantha Morton leaves a profound impact as a wronged woman who still cares deeply for her doomed ex.
For all of The Whale’s creative and technical excellence and its brief foibles, it all boils down to Brendan Fraser. His performance is one for the ages. It’s a miraculous turn that will strip your soul bare and leave you wrecked. It feels impossible to walk away from Fraser’s performance unscathed. At the absolute least, The Whale is an excellent vessel for an under-appreciated but well-liked actor to achieve true greatness while changing lives, including his own, in the process. The emotional or psychological torture is worth it to bear witness to the performance of a lifetime.