As The Whale slowly reveals its unconventional protagonist, it makes us feel as audiences must have felt during the shift from the glitz of the Golden Age to the grit of New Hollywood — from larger-than-life epics like The Ten Commandments to an intimate character study like Taxi Driver that gave us, as Roger Ebert would say, “the impression of having touched life itself.”
As life tends to do with people lately, the film introduces us to its hero from a distance. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) emerges through a disembodied voice in the void of cyberspace, which turns out to be the black screen on which he appears before the students of his virtual writing class. He blames the blackness on his busted webcam, but it is actually he who is broken and unable to show himself.
A 600-pound gay man grappling with grief and addiction, Charlie hails from the halls of New Hollywood. As you watch him like a fly on the wall of his shabby apartment, you’ll feel as if you’re in the backseat of Travis Bickle’s taxi — getting a glimpse of life typically deemed too dark and dreary for the silver screen. Like the films of 1970s New Hollywood, The Whale is an unflinching, achingly raw and devastatingly beautiful portrait of scarred people that will make you marvel at the sight of pure, messy, unfiltered humanity.
Despite the physical confines of Samuel D. Hunter’s script (based on his play of the same name), director Darren Aronofsky creates what feels like a vast, long-haunted world endlessly rich for exploration. As Aronofsky did in The Wrestler, he makes us feel as though we’re eavesdropping on a person from a specific, unique fringe many of us don’t often visit. When Charlie opens a long, wide drawer full of different candy bars, Aronofsky keeps the camera on it just long enough not to shame Charlie but to let us wonder how he accrued such an eclectic collection without leaving his home and, in turn, why he keeps it so organized.
We also wonder about the degree to which Charlie engages with the outside world. In addition to the tabloid talk show Maury, we see him watch news coverage of the 2016 presidential primaries, both of which highlight the growing shamelessness and cruelty of American culture. How has Charlie persevered through this toxic minefield, where the anonymity of the internet launches deeply personal battles and exposes people at their worst or most vulnerable? The film suggests this harsh, withering world leaves many isolated like Charlie, regardless of their body types.
Two of the most judgmental people imaginable soon disrupt Charlie’s routine isolation — his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), and a Mormon-esque missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). While Ellie scolds Charlie for abandoning her, Thomas suggests Charlie’s soul is in danger due to his sexual orientation and physical condition.
It’s here where you could argue the film becomes a bit melodramatic, but that seems to be part of its point. Like the daytime TV he watches, Charlie’s life borders on soap-opera, opening up to nothing but preachy sermons when he lets people in the door. Even when his daily pizza delivery driver finally catches a glimpse of him, he lets out a gasp that speaks volumes. These people are all too quick to condemn Charlie based on his surface appearance, but Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique keep the camera close on Fraser’s face and soulful eyes, which hold pain, regret and yearning all at once.
Fraser’s performance lives up to all the hype and accolades. Instantly disarming, he maintains a hopeful light and warmth you can hold onto even in the film’s darkest, coldest moments.
Fraser inhabits Charlie’s body through a blend of impressively realistic prosthetics and CGI, but he doesn’t call attention to it through the clichéd mannerisms you’d expect. You can tell that Fraser, who worked with the Obesity Action Coalition in preparing for the role, approached it with respect and empathy. He physically emphasizes the strength and energy Charlie exerts to carry his weight, never portraying his movement as weak.
Although Hunter has the cinematic tools to open up his play and present an idealized version of Charlie, neither he nor Aronofsky falls prey to the shallow, bullshit trope of depicting a character’s “inner beauty” as a thin, conventionally attractive person — the kind Fraser was in his heyday. Like Charlie, Fraser has faced ridicule for his own weight gain over the years. Unfortunately, a lot of early coverage regarding The Whale has gushingly reminisced about Fraser’s past body type. It’s sad to see people coming out of the film and doing exactly what it warns against — focusing on surface appearances.
There’s more than meets the eye not only in Charlie but in Ellie and Thomas as well. Like her father, Ellie has a warm generosity that comes from the same fiery place as her rage. And also like Charlie, Thomas hides an emotional mess beneath his organized manner of living. Sink and Simpkins deliver passionate performances, making both Ellie and Thomas, respectively, seem like they are always on the verge of imploding. As Charlie’s longtime friend and nurse, Liz, Hong Chau makes her frustration our own as she balances love, bitterness and a sense of obligation.
Charlie never judges any of these people, not even when they reveal their warts and hurl insults his way. He aims to see past their often harsh exteriors. But he isn’t a saint, either, and the film admirably never shies away from examining his mistakes or acts of selfish behavior. Although Charlie is fragile, no one treats him with kid gloves. That’s a credit to Hunter, Aronofsky and Fraser for their commitment to complexity.
While the film is certainly a stunning comeback for Fraser, The Whale is so much more. Sure, it may seem like the kind of soap-opera drama you typically flip past while surfing channels, but once you stop and immerse yourself in its world, the film will go on to shiver inside you.
Aronofsky maintains the mood of an unsettling calm before a storm — like when the sky glows green and the streets fall silent before a tornado. The perpetual rain and overcast sky outside Charlie’s apartment literalize this atmosphere. Rob Simonsen’s score bellows beneath every scene like the titular creature calling out from the depths of the abyss. Is this maudlin and on-the-nose? Sure, but it works for a film that’s a thunderous yet intimate depiction of an unheralded hero. It swings for big emotions in a small setting.
Amid the blockbuster spectacles of heroism in which Fraser used to star, this film presents a character we don’t usually see on the big screen, but he’s not without a superpower of his own. As Fraser said upon receiving the Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Award: “Charlie sees the good in others when they can’t see that in themselves.” In this time of endless doom-scrolling and soul-searching in cyberspace, that’s exactly what we need right now.