Charlie (Brendan Fraser) tells his students to write honestly. His words of inspiration are told in his English classes behind a computer screen in his living room, in the house that he hasn’t left in years.
Darren Aronofsky’s 2022 film adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Whale gives its viewers a glimpse into obese father Charlie’s dying quest to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), while examining the circumstances that caused a divide between them in the first place.
The film, which received a prolonged standing ovation in its debut at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, was released in the United States on Dec. 9.
Charlie’s life fell apart after he left his family to pursue a relationship with a man, only for his new partner to die soon after. After the loss of his boyfriend and estrangement from his loved ones, Charlie only found solace in food, eventually becoming a recluse in his own home.
Charlie takes every step with embarrassment and darts his eyes in shame. He’s accepted his decrepit circumstances but not the pain that he has both experienced and caused from not seeing his daughter in eight years.
The film takes place during the last days of Charlie’s life, as he is suffering from congestive heart failure and refuses to go to the hospital for treatment.
Fraser’s talent is what makes the film deserving of its accolades. Fraser skillfully emulates the complex emotions and subtle mannerisms of a regretful, reclusive man. He teases shades of Charlie’s past and buried personality, bringing the audience to care about the character’s fate and empathize with his mistakes.
Several visitations are made to Charlie’s home on the last days of life. His estranged daughter, former wife, the sister of his recently deceased partner, a pizza delivery man, and a missionary each visit his house. Each of these characters each bring Charlie closer to his acceptance of death.
While Fraser demonstrates his momentous acting skill and dedication to the role of Charlie, the visitors felt underwritten. They exist merely as plot points in Fraser’s path to redemption rather than their own developed characters. Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie’s caregiver and only friend—who is also the sister of his dead partner—is written as a stoic nurse with a hard exterior that is unraveled as the plot continues. Yet, her lines present themselves as contrived and shallow.
The movie is ironic and self-aware, positioning Charlie as a persistently positive and unstirred figure despite the miserable and dire situation he has created for himself. Charlie seizes every moment as a chance for reflection and gratitude even as he is being continuously put down by people in his life or events out of his control.
“Who would want me to be part of their life?” he asks in a conversation with his daughter.
The reality is no one did. While the characters cared for his life, they didn’t want him to be a part of theirs—Charlie is subjected to mere visits that lasted no more than a couple hours. His daughter abuses and ridicules him, but Charlie remains happy that he can see her face, hear her voice, and marvel at her intelligence.
Throughout The Whale, Charlie continually apologizes for inconveniences he creates, revealing to viewers that he is sorry for the burden of his existence. He needs help picking a dropped key off the ground and a friend to make a sandwich for him.
Characters in the film enter scenes as conveniently as they would in a play, reminding viewers of The Whale’s original form. The film takes place in Charlie’s home, exhausting the audience into a sense of claustrophobia in its hard-to-watch drab and melancholy atmosphere.
It becomes increasingly uncomfortable for viewers to watch him make messes when eating and try to stand up off the couch that he’s contained his life to. Aronofsky paints Charlie’s life in a morbid setting with food stains on his tee shirt, clutter, and takeout boxes on every countertop.
In one scene, Charlie goes out to his porch to pick up his daily pizza order, but accidentally runs into the delivery driver, whom he’s only previously spoken to through the door. His fear of judgment from others is met when this acquaintance looks in horror at Charlie and runs off at the sight of his size.
The Whale is markedly different from most of Aronofsky’s films which incorporate surrealist elements, such as Requiem For A Dream, Pi, and The Fountain. In contrast, The Whale comes off as more simple and bare.
The Whale possesses a clear, goal-driven narrative that comes across as shallow. The plot is merely moved by action and reaction scenes from type-cast characters. The otherwise unprovocative script, however, was elevated with the swooning film score playing during pivotal moments in the film.
Charlie tells his daughter that originality is the highest form of writing. The Whale meets this criteria in the original idea of the film, but Aronofsky’s execution is a restricted and, at times, unambitious interpretation of Hunter’s original play.