Human agony of both the physical and emotional kind is a Darren Aronofsky staple, but The Whale, which is driven by shattering work from Brendan Fraser as a 600lb teacher eating himself to death, pushes that theme to extremes while remaining steadfastly within the borders of naturalism. Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his play, the intense chamber drama never disguises its stage roots but transcends them with the grace and compassion of the writing and the layers of pain and despair, love and dogged hope peeled back in the central performance. Fraser makes us see beyond the alarming appearance to the deeply affecting heart of this broken man.
The play premiered in New York in 2012, and since then, Hunter has gone on to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (aka “Genius” Grant) and serve as a writer and producer on FX’s beloved comedy-drama series Baskets. He has built a body of work for the stage — predominantly set in his home state of Idaho — in which questions of queer identity, spirituality, solitude, existential sadness and the collective loss of vanishing communities are examined with piercing empathy and masterful excavation of suppressed feeling. His skill at illuminating ordinary lives has made him one of the most valued voices to emerge in American playwriting in the last decade or so.
The Bottom Line
There will be tears.
With its airless single setting and main character whose dire health crisis makes the ticking clock on his life apparent from the start, The Whale seemed a tricky prospect for screen transfer. Aronofsky succeeds not by artificially opening up the piece but by leaning into its theatricality, immersing us in the claustrophobia that has become inescapable for Fraser’s character, Charlie. The scene structure of a focal character confined to a few rooms while secondary characters come and go, at times overlapping, remains very much that of a play.
Shooting in the snug 1.33 aspect ratio might seem to box us in even more, and the shortage of light seeping in from outside Charlie’s apartment is perhaps a tad symbolically heavy-handed. But DP Matthew Libatique’s spry camera and Andrew Weisblum’s dynamic editing bring surprising movement to the static situation. The one significant questionable choice is the overkill of Rob Simonsen’s emotionally emphatic score, rather than trusting the actors to do that work.
Aronofsky and Hunter startle the audience early on, not just by exposing Charlie’s severe obesity — Fraser wears extensive all-digital prosthetics designed by Adrien Morot — but by revealing this mountain of a man to be still capable of sexual desire. Charlie keeps the camera off during the online writing course he teaches, claiming that the webcam on his laptop is broken. But its video component functions just fine when moments later he’s watching gay porn and furiously masturbating.
He’s interrupted by a knock at the door from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a seemingly unworldly young missionary from the New Life church, which preaches the acceptance of Christ as an End Times gateway to a better world. The awkward intrusion leaves Charlie struggling for breath. Convinced he’s dying — an eventuality for which he appears to have been rehearsing for months — he begs the panicked Thomas to read him a student’s essay on Melville’s Moby Dick, which brings him comfort for reasons that will become clear later on.
Charlie’s crisis is averted by the arrival of his healthcare worker friend Liz (Hong Chau, wonderful), who is used to dealing with his emergencies. She tells him his congestive heart failure and sky-high blood pressure mean he’ll likely be dead within a week. Exasperated at his continuing refusal to go to a hospital, ostensibly due to lack of health insurance, Liz is often impatient and angry with Charlie. But her love for him is such that she reluctantly indulges his fast-food addiction, bringing him buckets of fried chicken and meatball subs.
Grief is the ailment that unites Charlie and sharp-tongued Liz, also making her ferocious with the persistently present Thomas. Her adoptive father is a senior council member at New Life, and she blames the death of her brother Alan on the church. Alan was a former student of Charlie’s who became the love of his life but could never get over his father’s condemnation, developing a chronic eating disorder that eventually killed him.
The tidy symmetry of one partner starving himself to death and the other’s self-destruction happening through gluttony is a little schematic, just as the Moby Dick elements are a literary flourish that shows the writer’s hand. But Hunter’s script and the intimacy of the actors’ work keep the melancholy drama grounded and credible.
On top of his torment about his part in Alan’s death, Charlie is racked with guilt over his abandonment of his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) a decade ago at age 8, when he left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) to be with Alan. Mary obtained full custody and prevented Charlie from seeing their daughter, but he contacts her, eager to get to know her in whatever time he has left. Ellie is a rage-filled misanthrope at risk of flunking out of high school, and her hostility toward her father manifests as disgust and cruelty. But when he buys her time by offering to help with her essays and promising to leave her all the money he has, Ellie keeps coming back.
The teenager’s spiky confrontations with her gentle giant of a father are matched by her needling exchanges with Thomas, whom she manipulates the same way she does Charlie and her hard-bitten mother. Sink (a Stranger Things regular) doesn’t hold back in a characterization that justifies Mary’s description of her as “evil.” But the residual love beneath both women’s screechy outbursts and hurt distance is slowly revealed in some genuinely moving moments, notably as Charlie reminisces with Mary about a family trip to Oregon when he was much less heavy, the last time he went swimming.
Every member of the small ensemble makes an impression, even the mostly unseen Sathya Sridharan as a friendly pizza delivery guy who never fails to ask about Charlie’s welfare from behind the closed apartment door.
The standout, alongside Fraser, is Chau, following her slyly funny work in Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up with a nuanced turn as a woman knocked sideways by loss and bracing for another devastating hit of it. In both cases, her inability to intervene has left her helpless, enraged, exhausted and in visible pain. There’s also humor in Liz’s annoyance with Charlie’s innate positivity, which endures no matter how bad his circumstances become. In a movie that’s partly about the human instinct to care for other people, Chau breaks your heart.
The heroic performance in The Whale that will deservingly dominate the attention, however, is Fraser, who hasn’t been this good since Gods and Monsters. A terrific actor who fell off the radar for too long, he uses his big puppy-dog eyes to lovely effect, never letting us forget there’s a man scarred by raw emotional lacerations beneath the wheezing, sweating mound of flesh.
His physicality, straining to navigate awkward spaces and maneuver a body that requires more strength than Charlie has left, is distressing to witness, as are his fits of coughing, choking, gasping for breath. On the few occasions where he struggles to stand to his full height, he fills the frame, a figure of tremendous pathos less because of his size than his suffering. But in a film about salvation, it’s the inextinguishable humanity of Fraser’s performance that floors you.