The hype surrounding Brendan Fraser’s performance is real. Yes, his once recognizable visage is surrounded almost entirely by practical and digital effects, employed to give him the appearance of a 600 pound man, but even without these physical enhancements, his performance is as transformative and revelatory as you’ve heard. The man who gave us Link, the unfrozen caveman high schooler, and Rick, the hunky tomb-raiding explorer, has given life to Charlie, the kind-hearted, doomed man who refuses to see his own worth above his past mistakes. In doing so, Fraser has likely manifested not just a second act to his once floundering career, but a complete shift in how we see one of the most under-appreciated stars of our time. His performance, however, is just one staggering creation amidst a cast full of staggering creations, and for that alone, The Whale is more than worth your time. But the question remains: was this compelling stage play begging to be adapted to the silver screen? Not really.
If anyone is going to bring a claustrophobic story of a dying man on the fringes of existence to the screen, of course it was going to be Darren Aronofsky, and for what it’s worth, he does a fantastic job taking a single location play and turning it into cinema. The script, written and adapted by Samuel D. Hunter, is compelling and moving, but surprising as it may be, it doesn’t fully lend itself to a shift in medium to begin with. Even so, there is no denying the raw power it contains.
The story follows a week in the life of Charlie, an extremely overweight man who never leaves his house. He works as an online professor (with his webcam always turned off), and entertains frequent visits from his only friend, Liz (the incredible Hong Chau). She’s a medical professional, a friend, and unfortunately, an enabler. For every blood pressure test she administers and every admonishment she issues, she brings two meatball subs to cancel it all out. Per Liz’s warnings, Charlie should ignore the cost of medical help and check into a hospital as soon as possible. He is suffering from congenital heart failure and could die at literally any moment.
It’s terribly sad to watch, and if I may get personal for a moment, it really hit home. I am currently in the process of watching an addict contentedly lean into a problematic vice they they’ve admitted was a problem long ago. They see themself as out of time, when they are very clearly not — but they could be if they stay their current course. As a result, I feel for Liz as she tries everything to be heard by someone she would love to help, when they only way to break through is to speak via their vice of choice. Ugh. Difficult stuff.
Charlie refuses to seek treatment on account of his limited finances, but behind his logistical concerns lies an insidious desire to self-destruct. The reasons for his state of being are best left revealed by the film, but as he attempts to rekindle some sort of relationship with his estranged, confused daughter (Sadie Sink), a level of humanity emerges that belies Charlie’s pitiable exterior. This seems to be much of the thematic thrust of The Whale. We live in a world that categorizes and ranks people based on their bodies. The larger folks among us are often viewed as lesser than, if even viewed as people at all. A difficulty in watching The Whale comes from the knee jerk reaction to be grossed out by Charlie. This is intentional, of course. His appearance is designed to disgust and unsettle upon first look, and as his personality becomes a focal point, the disgust shifts to the viewer — we are forced to recognize our own biases, blessings, and vices. We are forced to understand that our failures exist just the same as Charlie’s do, even if they aren’t as immediately visible.
This is a naturally murky angle in a world where body positivity is still contested territory and aesthetic biases rule the day, but Charlie’s condition is not portrayed as a commentary on obesity. A similar story could be told where Charlie is a drug user or a gambling addict. What’s different in using obesity to this end are the aforementioned physical manifestations of Charlie’s issues, as well as what motivates our floundering protagonist. Alongside self-medication, which is certainly an aspect of Charlie’s disorder, addiction typically comes with the chasing of a high, be it from drugs or risk. But there is no high being chased here. Instead, this is a man who has reached a stage of “fuck it.” His vice no longer makes him feel good, and he sees himself as beyond saving. He doesn’t want to get better. He’s taken the first important recovery step of admitting he has a problem, but he does not see any solution as feasible or worthy.
Parallels can be drawn to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but without the skewed concept of “glory” playing into things. There is no glory for Charlie — just a soul yearning to connect, but from within a vessel that is long past its ability to do so with ease.
In maintaining the single-location setting (Charlie’s apartment) Aronofsky manages to find many ways to cinema-tize the proceedings. On change, which I was advised of by someone who has seen the play, is that Charlie is able to move around his home with the assistance of a walker, and does so noticeably more often than in the stage version. This allows for scenes to occur in and near other notable rooms in his abode, and even allows for a particularly difficult scene on the front porch. At the same time, however, these changes do make it noticeable how clearly tailored for the stage the dialogue and blocking are. Lines that feel needlessly expositional here would likely sing in a black box theater. A few third act developments would likely hit much harder if we didn’t have a camera making an excuse for itself to move.
This is all boilerplate stuff for the most part, as very few plays can make the jump to film without these exact issues, but it does lead the viewer to wonder why it was adapted at all. The answer, of course, is that most people would not have heard of this remarkably honest work otherwise. If it gets a story worth telling in front of the eyes of the masses, that’s reason enough to facilitate a medium shift. And if it gets Dudley Do-Right a well-deserved Oscar and a ticket back to the A-list, even better.
The Whale is not an easy watch, and for some viewers it may prove to be abhorrent, but that’s all part of what makes the film so challenging and worth watching. One might approach it to get a look at a transformed Brendan Fraser, but by the end, few will be looking outward at all, instead looking inward at their own failures of kindness, perhaps with a renewed dedication to openness.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau
Rated R, 117 minutes