The Whale is an often painful to watch but absorbing drama about a reclusive
600-pound English teacher who holds all his classes online. He is despised by
his whole family (mostly because of his life choices), and he tries to find some
dignity and redemption in what is bound to be a short life.
The film’s title refers to both the lead character whose large mass makes him
resemble a whale, but also to the book Moby Dick which features prominently in
the storyline (the main character’s favorite essay is about the Melville novel).
Although the film has often received mixed reviews, Brendan Frasier has received
universal acclaim for his gutsy performance in the lead role, and he is one of
the leading contenders for a best actor Oscar. Personally, I think either Austin
Butler or Colin Ferrell will win, although of the three, Frasier created the
most tragically unforgettable performance.
The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky one of the most promising and talented
film makers to emerge in the 90s. Some of his films fulfilled his great promise
(Pi, Requiem for a Dream,
were all excellent) while some did not (including Noah, The Fountain, and
Mother.) I got a chance to interview him when he started out and it was one of
the most rewarding discussions, I have had with a film maker. The article that
resulted from the talk can be seen on my website at www.artinterviews.org.
Aronofsky specializes in psychological dramas often with embedded religious and
spiritual motifs (for instance Pi was filled with Kabbalah references), and this
film falls loosely in this category with the main character as a kind of
pathetic anti hero Christ figure who courts death for the good of others (in
this case his family).
The film stars the current regular in the entertaining Doom Patrol series,
Brendan Frasier (also of George from the Jungle, The Mummy, Bedazzled, and Blast
from the Past) as the rotund Charlie, in this year’s greatest comeback role.
Frasier is magnificent in the lead as Charlie, and it is all the more surprising
because he has been in few noteworthy projects (although I did like him in Crash
and Gods and Monsters) in the last 30 years Aronofsky also helped resurrect the
career of the forgotten Mickey Rourke for awhile with The Wrestler and hopefully
this film will do the same for Frasier.
The film also benefits from a distinguished supporting class including Sadie
Sink (of Stranger Things), Samantha Morton (of She Said) and Hung Chau (of
Downsizing.), who got an Oscar nomination for best actress in a supporting role.
The film opens with a shot of a zoom session in which some of the student’s
faces can be seen, but the teacher’s slot is filed by a talking triangle (I have
taught zoom classes and this the opposite of the way most classes are set up.)
We later find out that Charlie is of course doing this to hide his massive body
weight so as to not shock, disturb or horrify the class.
Charlie does not seem to want to see anyone and the reason for this is he has
been horribly traumatized and basically gave up on life after his male romantic
partner, Alan died unexpectedly. He won’t even go out to get food and constantly
has pizza delivered to his home. One of the film’s more grotesque scenes shows
him wolfishly devouring food and we hear his lips smacking getting large
portions of crumbs on his clothes. There is no doubt that he is eating and
lazing his way to death.
The only person who actually initially seems to like and care for him is his
friend and caretaker Liz (Hong Chau) who gives him tests and helps revive him
when he is on the verge of death (which seems to be pretty often.) She warns him
constantly of his high blood pressure and tries to get him to take better care
of himself, but he seems resigned to an early death.
Another person who visits him regularly is Thomas, an optimistic missionary from
the shady cult of life church. Thomas shows up and helps Charlie when is most in
need and Thomas becomes convinced that his mission is to save Charlie and help
convert him. This angers Charlie who often physically abuses Thomas because he
blames to church for his ex-lover’s death.
His relationship with his family is beyond terrible. Charlie’s daughter, Ellie
(Sadie Sink) is spunky, sardonic, and emotionally disturbed. She loathes Charlie
because he walked out on his family to be with his male lover. He even has to
offer to pay her and tutor her free of charge (she is smart but unmotivated and
failing in school) to get her to spend time with him. While she is openly
antagonistic and insulting to him at first as she talks to him more, she softens
and begins to become more accepting. Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) is
still in the picture. Although she too initially hates him, she begins to
understand him and his choices more as the film progresses.
Although Charlie has basically created his own prison and has made some bad
choices, he is basically a good person and he ends up being sympathetic (the
movie does not portray him in a freak show like manner as some critics claim).
Despite his obvious yearning for self-destruction, Charlie does have empathy for
other people and has a secret plan to leave the world and his loved ones in a
The film has been heavily criticized for its casting. Brendan Frasier wears
prosthetics to appear heavier (he also gained a significant amount of weight for
the film and many think they should have hired a real obese man to play the
role. But if you extended this logic to every movie scenario The Joker should
have to be portrayed by a real lunatic in the lead role and Bruce Wayne should
be played by a real millionaire playboy philanthropist.
One of the problems the film has since it is almost all set in one apartment,
the film does not always explore all of its cinematic possibilities in terms of
using space. It sometimes feels hampered by its theater origins and it
occasionally feels quite stagey in its presentation. The movie could have found
ways to use, open up or vary the setting more.
Also, although the acting in this film is outstanding, the story itself does not
always rise to the level of the performances. Like Aronofsky’s slightly better
this film is a fairly predictable portrayal of a character’s intentional and
unapologetic journey towards self-destruction. And while most of the complaints
against it are not well founded, and I guarantee anyone who sees The Whale will
never forget the astonishingly convincing lead performance. Frasier’s acting is
Oscar worthy and his portrayal in The Whale will rank as memorable as
Billy Bob Thorton's was in Slingblade, another performance remembered long after
most of the year’s other acclaimed performances are forgotten.