The cetacean referred to most directly in the title of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is not the film’s 600-pound protagonist but the elusive white whale of Moby-Dick, a novel that figures largely in the hero’s past history and present emotional life. Whether or not that title nonetheless strikes you as a cruel play on words may depend upon how this peculiar and often deeply unpleasant movie sits with you. If I had to evaluate the movie making my own allusion to Melville’s leviathan, I might have gone with “she blows.”
Brendan Fraser got a six-minute standing ovation when The Whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and he is is admittedly superb in the role of Charlie, a gay English professor who lives alone in a cluttered, airless apartment somewhere in Idaho. Charlie teaches only by Zoom with the camera turned off, gets around his small flat by the use of a walker, and generally appears to have resigned himself to the existence of a clinically depressed shut-in.
For a homebound loner, Charlie certainly receives no shortage of visitors. His doorbell seems to ring every 15 minutes with another urgent interruption: the pizza guy who delivers him two large pies nearly every night but has never laid eyes on him. An earnest young man (Ty Simpkins) proselytizing for an ominous-sounding Christian sect called “New Life.” Charlie’s furious teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), who has been mostly estranged from him since he left her mother (Samantha Morton) for a now-deceased younger man who was his one true love. Above all, there is Charlie’s only apparent friend, Liz (Hong Chau), who shows up almost daily with a combination of tough love and helpless enablement: Even as she begs him to start taking care of himself, she’s unwrapping the meatball sub she picked up for him on the way over.
Early on, Liz, a nurse by profession, takes Charlie’s blood pressure and tells him he is in a state of congestive heart failure and has, at most, a week to live. Since Charlie obstinately refuses to seek medical help other than his regular visits from Liz, both she and the audience soon come to understand that he has resigned himself to a form of passive suicide, his weapons being not pills or razor blades but the buckets of fried chicken he consumes alone in front of the TV. A large part of the movie’s first hour is devoted to observing Charlie’s daily habits—he needs a grabber stick to pick up objects off the floor! A hook suspended from the ceiling allows him to pull himself out of bed!—with a voyeurism thinly disguised as compassion.
The script, adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own stage play, positions Charlie as a kind of Christ figure, though it isn’t clear who or what he is meant to be saving with his intentional self-sacrifice. His suffering, in the form of both physical discomfort and spiritual torment, is foregrounded in nearly every scene, sometimes to an unintentionally comic degree, such as when, as he lunges toward one guest minutely chronicling the indignities of being a human being of his size, Rob Simonsen’s score surges with music more suited to a monster movie than a single-location character study. A hard-to-watch sequence in which Charlie eats his way through most of the contents of his fridge in a self-destructive binge reminded me of Aronofsky’s drug-addiction horror show Requiem for a Dream, a film I have never forgiven for grossing me out without providing enough meaning or beauty to make the experience worthwhile. The Whale has a similar fascination with spectatorship as a form of masochism: To watch Charlie suffer is to suffer along with him, but it is also, in a formulation less flattering to the viewer, a way of allowing him to do the suffering on our behalf, maybe even for our entertainment.
Brendan Fraser has said that his preparation for playing Charlie came in part from his experience of living with his oldest son, now 20, who has autism and is obese. Fraser has long been an actor whose imposing physical presence contrasts with an air of gentle guilelessness. Some of his most memorable early roles, including The Mummy, Encino Man, and Gods and Monsters, have played on this combination of qualities. The Whale only takes the contrast further by stranding his beautiful soul in a body the movie, for all its gestures toward empathy, frames as monstrous. Fraser’s all-in commitment to playing Charlie—300-pound fatsuit and all—put me in mind of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker, an act of faith so complete it managed to be the only transcendent element of a thuddingly bad movie. But Fraser’s beautifully judged performance isn’t enough to save this abject wallow through a mire of maudlin clichés about trauma and redemption.
Is The Whale, at its core, an exercise in fatphobia? As a critic and viewer who is not a member of the plus-size community, I’m not certain it’s my place to answer. The movie’s defects strike me more as lapses in tone and taste than as an error in the choice of subject matter: It’s possible to imagine a film about the same subject that didn’t turn its main character into a spectacle for pity, or one that cast an actor closer to Charlie’s weight in the lead, rather than just a heavyset one in a padded suit. It’s also possible to imagine some viewers, whatever their size, finding beauty and empathy in Aronofsky’s portrait of a soul in freefall. And certainly Fraser—who plays Charlie as a wonderfully specific individual, with his own deep character flaws along with a tender heart and a sly sense of humor—goes a long way toward humanizing a character who could easily be nothing but a confluence of leaden metaphors. Given the Academy’s love for roles that require extreme physical self-transformation, it may well be that Fraser ends up winning a Best Actor award for The Whale. (He’s already widely considered the favorite.) If so, he will join Joaquin Phoenix in a rare pantheon that should perhaps become an Oscar category all its own: best performance in a terrible movie.