The Whale Movie Review: Brendan Fraser's virtuoso performance powers this deeply empathetic drama
Darren Aronofsky's grim but empowering new drama emphasises the need to be our authentic selves
Single-setting dramas, especially ones that are heavily performance-driven, are tricky. There is always the risk of either making it too talky at the expense of the craft or too craft-centric at the expense of performances. But The Whale is safe in the hands of Darren Aronofsky, who stages an intense drama with the sort of skill and tightly focussed vision that recall, say, Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men). Not since The Sunset Limited (with Samuel L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones) have I seen a performance-driven single-setting drama that held my attention from beginning to end. But where The Whale differs from that film, and what it does better, is that its visual style constantly doesn't remind you its source material is a play; it manages to make you forget the confines in which its characters move.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
The limited setting of The Whale becomes increasingly invisible as we move further into the film. Part of this has to do with how Arofonsky uses this space -- the temporary residence that serves as a sort of purgatory for a dying man. Part of this has to do with having more characters show up, one of whom remains chiefly in the shadows. Part of this has to do with the presence of an actor like Brendan Fraser (going through his 'Brenaissance'), who brings up a kind of devout, extreme commitment to his performance that we have not seen him deliver before. The Whale takes one back to the days when we got enamoured by those actors who, with prosthetic make-up, made themselves completely unrecognisable; actors who, devoid of vanity, strayed as far away, in terms of their appearance, from their real-life selves as possible.
With his new film, Aronofsky revisits a familiar terrain -- an estranged father-daughter relationship -- he last explored in The Wrestler (with Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei). The fact that he chose to do it the second time from a different perspective makes me curious about what drew Arofonsky to this particular subject. Had these emotions passed through him at some point? Or does he know anyone who has experienced the same?
That said, The Whale isn't trying to be the same film as The Wrestler, although, like that film, it exhibits a strongly self-destructive streak that reflects that of its protagonist. There are at least three places in The Whale where Charlie's helplessness and repetitive attempts to make his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), warm up to him made me choke up. But The Whale also does something else -- make audience members in the theatre gasp during numerous instances, such as seeing an extremely obese man diagnosed with congestive heart failure often stuff his mouth full of junk food and chocolates. It's not a comforting sight. But, interestingly enough, that image causes a conflict to germinate in one's mind.
On the one hand, we want to see it as the wishes of a dying man granted by his nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who liberally obliges him with big, meat-filled greasy sandwiches. On the other, we want Charlie to get better because Liz often reminds him of the possibility of that happening. Much of The Whale is powered by their dynamic, strikingly reminiscent of a mother and child. There is also a clash of ideals. Charlie is often apologetic and optimistic; he believes in the "good in people," whereas Liz is a staunch cynic who either gets irate at Charlie constantly saying "I'm sorry" or his ability to think positively about his daughter because Liz and Mary (Samantha Morton), his ex-wife and Ellie's mother, doesn't. The latter, especially, thinks of her as evil.
We get a lengthy heated conversation between Charlie and Mary that culminates in an unexpectedly warm moment. You get to hear the story of a woman who, like her daughter, felt betrayed by Charlie after he left them to pursue a romantic liaison with a man. In addition to his obesity, Charlie's sexuality is a key talking point of The Whale, later amplifying the conflict between Charlie and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary whose relentless attempts to proselytise Charlie reveals an offputting side of the latter. The involvement of religion brought to mind another film that used it similarly, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood; except here, nobody talks about wanting to drink the other's milkshake or beat them to death with a bowling pin.
But as we gradually peel more layers of The Whale -- the title is a reference to an essay, of personal significance, on Moby Dick that Charlie constantly goes back to for comfort -- the predominant theme of the film slowly reveals itself —identity— and we instantly recall the opening scene, when we intrude this man's most intimate space, which introduces a personality trait that becomes very crucial to what the film is trying to say. We then learn of his profession as an English teacher and his reluctance to show his face to the students of his online classes.
The Whale eventually conveys a point we realise that it has been driving towards the whole time -- the need to be our authentic selves and to live free of pretensions and the shackles imposed by society and religion. After the film, I had an Instagram conversation with a friend who likened this aspect of The Whale to the heartwarming "O Captain! My Captain!" moment from Dead Poets Society.
If there is a small measure of comfort to be found in The Whale, an otherwise grim picture, then it's in this lingering message of empowerment that Charlie leaves us with before that proverbial flash appears.