Updated: Jan 1
I hate Darren Aronofsky’s movies—but I love Brendan Fraser. I’m definitely not the only one who felt this torn walking into the theater for The Whale’s opening weekend; and I can’t say I left the viewing any less conflicted. While it's impossible to ignore the many critiques the film’s received, this movie does offer a unique, visceral viewing experience. Because of that, it’s a real shame Aronofsky’s infamously careless touch will still manage to leave a bad taste in your mouth. As we follow Charlie reckoning with his partner’s suicide and reconnecting with an estranged daughter, all while the 2016 election rages in the background, viewers are shown the effects of a heartless system on families, friends, workspaces, entire communities—but the dots aren’t connected in a way that could save this movie from its own sad story.
I had so many issues with this script. Along with tons of believability issues, and a few bloopers, the very framing of the narrative was a problem: Charlie’s emotional eating has landed him in such a state that he’s physically incapable of leaving his apartment. Because of this, characters can only enter/exit a scene one way, which resulted in the film failing to break free of its stage play origins, seeming more like a videotaped theatrical production than an actual movie. It gets a bit repetitive, watching people revolve in and out of his front door, and after a while it doesn’t feel as if the story is going anywhere. Some might say this is to reflect the sense of being stuck that Charlie lives with daily, but for that to have been successful we would’ve needed to see more from him than a few breakdowns. Instead, we're made to only understand this character through his suffering. While melodrama is more acceptable in theater, it doesn’t transfer as well on film.
The emotions are cranked all the way up and stay there. This is a problem, because the audience eventually gets numb when the entire movie feels so intense, and it’s hard to really connect with the story or characters. There were points where the raw nature of what we were watching felt more like an exploitation film than an award season highlight. Some of the actors were able to transcend these issues—Fraser and Hong Chau each showcased an impressive emotional range that was communicated very delicately—but others struggled. I particularly found Sadie Sink’s acting to be over the top, wildly committed to the ‘angsty teen in an Oscar bait movie’ trope. I didn’t mind her in the film’s final scene, which was an incredibly emotional moment that one can’t help but get swept up in; but I’d argue that had more to do with the score and cinematography than her performance. Speaking of Aronofsky’s signature lack of subtlety, the visuals of this movie were too on the nose.
Colors in this film are desaturated, grainy, and the palette never goes too bold or bright, as if to let viewers know this is, by and large, a hopeless movie. In case this wasn’t obvious enough, the image onscreen has a boxy 1.33 aspect ratio that emphasizes our sense of being trapped. While they may be a bit obvious and heavy-handed, these choices in cinematography make the news clips spread throughout the movie particularly interesting; it’s as if Charlie has no control over the world around him, including the election, a feeling many could relate to at that time. But for such a technically-proficient depiction of hopelessness, Aronofsky offers no alternatives, nor any grounds for optimism which is, to me, irresponsible artmaking. I don’t think it’s enough for art to point and say ‘look: things are bad.’ We know things are bad. Now what? Perhaps the ending scene with Charlie and his daughter can be seen as a kind of positive note, but it wasn’t explored deeply enough for us to really be able to tell, and it came at a needlessly cruel cost in terms of the film’s treatment of Charlie’s obesity.
Throughout the film, a student essay on Moby Dick is continuously invoked. The essay expresses pity for Captain Ahab, “who thinks his life will be better if he can just kill this whale,” and pity for the whale, who didn’t know someone could hate him so much. Within the context of the 2016 election, we can read Ahab’s shortsightedness as a stand-in for the bigotry that flourished as Trump rose to power. This reading of The Whale turns Aronofsky’s vision less into a fatphobic screed, and more into a very flawed attempt at shining light on those who society leaves behind, those who—until 2016—didn’t know they could be hated so much. That being said, there are moments in the film where it feels more focused on other people and how they see or feel about Charlie rather than Charlie himself taking centerstage. Most of the time, Charlie willingly accepts people's cruelty and disdain, responding with the same kind of positivity you'd expect from a motivational poster. It hints at a flatness in his character, choosing to portray him as some kind of saint rather than a person.I think this is the main issue: the way Aronofsky uses this character, an entire group of people, as a metaphor. Along with the dehumanization of such an act, it’s just a bit lazy.
The controversy around this film is deserved, and it’s a shame that Aronofsky’s carelessness is detracting from some powerhouse acting performances. While I can’t say I fully regret watching it, I do wish I’d waited for it to stream. There were some really compelling moments that could potentially lead to some big systemic critiques of healthcare and the way human life is valued under class society, but we’d be talking about a whole other director making this if that were the case. What I can say about this movie is there were a lot of tears shed by my fellow moviegoers, and that Fraser’s acting is so phenomenal I couldn’t help but feel incredibly attached to his character. As I said in my Avatar review: art is messy, as flawed as the artists themselves—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique pointless cynicism and, sadly, that’s what Aronofsky’s given us yet again.