Whale review: Darren Aronofsky’s worst themes, shoved into a big suit

This review of The whale was originally released after its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated and re-released for the film’s theatrical release.

A24 The whale lays down all of Darren Aronofsky’s worst trends in one big suit. It’s an exercise in abjection in the style of Aronofsky’s torture. Requiem for a Dreambut it focuses on an even more vulnerable target than Requiem‘s drug addicts. It’s also full of biblical pet silliness from Mother!, Noahand Fountainbut centered on a Christ figure whose masochistic superpower is to absorb the cruelty of all around him and store it safely within his massive frame.

To be fair, some people enjoy this kind of misery. But those viewers are also warned that not only is this movie hard to bear and likely to actively harm some audiences, but it’s also a self-serving reinforcement of the status quo – which is one of the most boring as a movie can be.

For a film that, in the most generous reading possible, encourages viewers to consider that there may be a painful story behind bodies they consider “disgusting” (the word of the film), The whale seems to have little interest in the point of view of its protagonist, Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie is a middle-aged divorcee living in a small apartment somewhere in Idaho, where he teaches online English composition classes. Charlie never turns on his camera during class because he’s big – very big, around 600 pounds. Charlie struggles to get around without a walker, and he has adaptive devices like grab sticks hidden around his house.

If an alien landed on Earth and wondered if the human species found its larger members attractive or repulsive, The whale clearly communicate the answer. Aronofsky turns up the sound every time Charlie eats, to accentuate the wet sound of lips smacking. He plays ominous music under these footage, so we know Charlie is up to something really very bad. Fraser’s neck and upper lip are perpetually beaded with sweat, and his T-shirt is dirty and covered in crumbs. At one point, he takes off his shirt and walks slowly to his bed, sagging rolls of prosthetic fat hanging over his body as he leans into the camera like the brute beast that he is. In case viewers still don’t understand that they’re supposed to find him disgusting, he recites an essay on Moby-Dick and how a whale is “a poor big animal” without feelings.

And that’s exactly what Aronofsky communicates about him through the making of the film. The story in The whaleThe first half of is a gauntlet of humiliation, starting with an evangelical missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who comes upon Charlie having a heart attack, gay porn still playing on his laptop after a pathetic attempt at masturbation . Charlie’s nurse and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), is mostly kind to him, though she allows him with meatball subs and buckets of fried chicken. So does Thomas, though he’s less interested in Charlie as a person than as a soul to be saved. But Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), openly despises him and says the most vicious things she can think of to punish Charlie for leaving her and her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton). , when Ellie was 8 years old.

Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (adapting his own play) don’t reveal the condescending point of it all until the film’s second half: Charlie is a saint, a Christ figure, the fat man who has so much loved the world. that he let the people in his life treat him like complete crap in order to absolve them of their hatred, and him of his sins. Meanwhile, a subplot involving Thomas’ past life in Iowa makes the bizarre claim that people are actually trying to help when they treat others meanly, which can only be true if the target of this hostility does not know what is good for them. So which one is it? Does a person have to turn the other cheek or be cruel to be kind? Depends on how big they seem. Charlie never comments on the other characters’ smoking and drinking, but they certainly do comment on his weight.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The whale is how much of a kind of insight it is. Aronofsky and Hunter just needed to show empathy and curiosity for people Charlie’s size, rather than fatherly guessing at their motives. The main culprit here is a plot where Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, even though his blood pressure is dangerously high and he has symptoms of congestive heart failure. At first, he lies to Liz and says he doesn’t have the money to pay the huge medical bills he would rack up as an uninsured patient. Then it turns out that Charlie has over $100,000 in savings.

Charlie's 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) stands half-shadowed by a doorway, looking sad, in The Whale

Photo: Niko Tavernise/A24

The whale understands this to be a combination of selflessness – he hopes to give this money to Ellie after she dies – and suicidality. What reveals Aronofsky and Hunter’s projection of Charlie’s motives is that extensive studies have shown why obese patients avoid medical treatments, and it has nothing to do with self-denying messiah complex bullshit. Doctors are just plain cruel to fat people — and disproportionately likely to dismiss, belittle and misdiagnose them.

The other frustrating thing is that Brendan Fraser is actually a major asset in the title role. He casts Charlie as a smart, funny, and thoughtful man who loves language and creativity, and refuses to let the tragic circumstances of his life turn him into a cynic. He sees the best in everyone, even Ellie, whose insults he counters with affirmations and support. (She is in pain, you see.) Fraser’s eyes are kind and his brows are furrowed in sadness and worry.

But if there’s rage behind those eyes, you can’t see it. If Charlie just tells people what they want to hear in hopes of minimizing their abuse, it doesn’t translate. The film seems content with his superficial protestations that he’s fine and happy and just a naturally positive guy, which again betrays his lack of interest in Charlie’s inner emotional life – despite Fraser’s sensitive attempt to find a man. inside the symbol.

Aronofsky and his team are more interested in their own intelligence. Some of the barbs thrown around Charlie’s apartment are actually quite funny. (The film openly shows its theatrical roots: the whole story takes place within the confines of Charlie’s apartment and porch.) Chau in particular brings prickly warmth to her role as Liz, the type of friend whose language lovers is playful insults, and whose purpose in life is as a fierce defender. Liz suffers too, of course; everyone is here. But while everyone is hurting, Charlie must be hurting the most.

If you look The whale as a fable, its moral is that it is the responsibility of the abused to love and forgive their abusers. The film thinks he’s saying, “You don’t understand; he is fat because he is in pain. But he ends up saying, “You don’t understand; we have to be cruel with the big ones, because we suffer. Aronofsky and Hunter’s biblical metaphor aside, fat people have not volunteered to serve as repositories of society’s rage and contempt. No one agrees to be bullied so the bully can feel better about themselves – it’s a self-serving lie that bullies tell themselves. It is a martyrdom imposed from outside, which negates the purpose of the exercise.

In The whale, Aronofsky posits his sadism as an intellectual experiment, challenging viewers to find the humanity buried beneath Charlie’s thick layers of fat. It’s not as benevolent a premise as he seems to think. He makes the assumption that a 600-pound man is inherently unlikable. It’s like approaching a stranger on the street and saying, “You’re an abomination, but I love you anyway,” in keeping with the strong streak of self-satisfied Christianity that the film purports to criticize. Audience members can come away proud of themselves for shedding a few tears for this disgusting whale, while having no new idea what it is to be this whale. It’s not empathy. It’s a pity, buried under a thick suffocating layer of contempt.

The whale now playing in theaters.

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