Nobody deserves a comeback more than Brendan Fraser. In fact he deserves all the thanks in the world for being one of the few things that reunites the cesspool that is twitter. If you look anywhere you’ll see nothing but joy and praise for the man who was disgustingly blacklisted from Hollywood. And while this comeback is a wonderful thing it begged the question if it would overshadow the film itself that is the vessel for this comeback. THE WHALE directed by Darren Aronofksy is a heart wrenching and difficult story of abandonment, self-destruction, mental illness and addiction. It is also one that finds ways to be empathetic and genuine in all its emotions. This may not seem apparent at first from its very rough around the edges dialogue and characters. This by no means is an easy film, but one that wants you to feel every heartache. Thankfully this is never done through manipulation, but rather through damaged people coming in and out of the same room in desperate attempt to find a place of solace.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) doesn’t want anyone to ever see him. An English professor for an online course, he leaves his screen blank. As his deep voice drowns on through the lecture he tells his students that his camera is broken and that they are not missing much anyways. Aronofksy is one that is quite familiar with making his audience feel claustrophobic, and his 4:3 aspect ratioed film reveals that Charlie is a morbidly obsessed man sheltered in his dark Idaho apartment. The rain is ferocious and constantly hitting the windows. Charlie is sinking and can only find solace in a former students essay on Moby Dick that he must read out loud whenever he is in pain. A pain that comes quite often as Charlie’s health is declining as his binge eating is taking its last toll on his life. Adapted from his own play of the same name Samuel D. Hunter wants us all to know the exact dire situation Charlie is in. A man who now lives alone due to leaving his wife and daughter for a former male student feels no reason to keep staying around. Aronofksy seems to find himself drawn to these self-destructive men whether it be Randy the Ram in The Wrestler or Tomas a man searching for eternity in the undervalued The Fountain. Charlie fits the bill for an Aronofksy film. Fraser may be covered in prosthetics (some of the best in recent years) but never hidden is the extraordinary performance he displays. This is a performance for the ages, as Fraser allows us to empathize with Charlie, but also find ourselves wondering about the people he has left behind.
One of those people is Charlies 17 year old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). The kind of teenage daughter that wears every emotion on their sleeve even when trying to masquerade it with anger. So basically every teenager. Ellie seeks out her father for not just answers but to express her disgust in everything he has become. Sink who is best known for being on the juggernaut show Stranger Things and has taken the internet meme world by storm from both that show and being a part of the now Taylor Swift ‘stan” world. Sink going up against some other major players soars above. Here is a performance that is extremely cold and is never begging for your sympathy. In the wrong hands it could be seen as down right brutal but Sink is able to be a counterattack to every one of Fraser’s kindhearted gestures as Charlie. The two bounce off each other not just as sparring partners but as a father and daughter duo that finds a way to move further apart even if it feels like they may get closer.
Family drama is not the only thing at play in this complicated uneasy film. THE WHALE may be about a possible redemption, but that doesn’t happen without some hard self-evaluation. Charlie knows he is on a destructive path; he is also told every day from his close friend and nurse Liz (an extraordinary Hong Chau). Chau as Liz is another well balanced role that toes the line of honesty and downright cruel. She cares so much for Charlie that she goes beyond hard love; she knows there is no more return for Charlie. Death is around the corner and much like the audience has to give all they can while still standing on the sidelines.
There will be a lot of talk (it has already begun) about if THE WHALE is just glorifying fatphobia and if the film relies on complete manipulation to get there. This is unfortunate since the film is clearly never going about in such a way. There are many difficult scenes involving binge eating and abuse but they are never shying away from the reality of what is a mental illness that is often strengthened by trauma. The film for all its exciting technical choices is still a strong actor’s film. Fraser is giving it his all in a performance that will go beyond any awards recognition. It is a reminder of the years we have lost with one of the industry’s nicest and hardest worker. It is also an act of kindness that is given to us by Aronofsky and the entire cast. Chau who has built a wonderful resume for herself, and Sink whose career is just beginning to fully blossom, as well as Ty Simpkins and Samantha Morton who play key roles. All of them are deliver empathetic work that proves the venture set out by this film. Even when THE WHALE comes to its powerful and gut punch of an ending it wants you to take away the embrace that comes from acts of kindness. To not just limit yourself to those that have been good to you, but also those that may have scorned you or left you with burning questions that should have been answered long ago. Even in times when we feel like we are drowning there can still be that last bit of hope that allows us to reach the surface even if it only lasts for a moment.
THE WHALE WILL BE RELEASED IN THEATERS DECEMBER 9