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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

The Whale // Film Review

The Whale is a difficult film to watch, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Coming in with even a passing knowledge of director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and knowing that the source material, a play of the same name from Samuel D. Hunter about a 600 pound man, it would only to natural to expect a two-hour freak show of grotesque body horror, a cruel disregard for its characters, and, let’s face it, probably a real whale popping up somewhere near the end. Nobody has been quick to forget Mother, after all.

But The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser in a role billed as his ‘comeback’, couldn’t be less in line with Aronofsky's regular playbook. Fraser plays Charlie, an English teacher who is also, yes, a 600 pound, morbidly obese man. Charlie has recently been informed by his nurse and best friend Liz (Hong Chau) that he will probably be dead within a week unless he seeks immediate hospital care, something which he refuses to do. At first he leans on his lack of health insurance as an excuse, but as the film goes on we come to understand some of his ulterior motives, including a strangely blissful acceptance of his fate. This is all by his design, we learn; he has done this to his body by choice over a long period of grief and sorrow, and now he is just about ready to step into the light. That is, as soon as he can reconcile with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink.

The elephant in the room here is Charlie’s physical appearance. He is indeed large in frame, but neither Aronofsky nor Fraser ever play this for laughs or even shocks. It is a true exercise in empathy, with nearly every frame of the film featuring Charlie being designed to make your stomach sink, not out of horror or disgust but out of sympathy for a man who knows that his gut is the only thing anyone is ever looking at. Even his loved ones, who have long moved beyond body-shaming, can't help but stare in pity. Fraser plays Charlie as weighed down by his body, emotionally more than physically; although his cheery and optimistic composure is generally worn as a mask, it slips further with every realisation that he is being judged for his size rather than his intellect or spirit.


But the film plays with the prejudice and perception of its audience too; our introduction to Charlie sees him masturbating to pornography from behind, with folds of fat pouring out over the couch and light glaring harshly off the last few hairs on his head. When he reaches orgasm, he starts to wheeze and choke. The sensation, however pleasant, has thrown his heart into overdrive. Indeed, he would die there and then if not for the kindness of a religious missionary on his doorstep. It's a raw and distressing image; pornography on its own is held in low regard by modern society, but to watch a man nearly kill himself to enjoy it invites all kinds of prejudice. You’d be lying if you said otherwise.

It is the endeavour of The Whale, and Fraser specifically, to shatter this first impression and create a new idea of the man beneath the fat. Key to this is Fraser’s approach to Charlie, who he describes as “the most heroic man [he's] ever played.” Charlie sees the good in everyone, with his ex-wife going so far as to call it the only thing she ever liked about him. This is especially fortunate for him now that he is rendered is so immobile as to be helpless in the company of any visitors who don't have his best interests at heart.


Chief among them is Ellie, Charlie's troubled and often cruel teenage daughter who he worries is not only friendless but “has forgotten what makes her amazing.” She wants nothing to do with him; he walked out when she was eight, and this is the first time she’s seen him since. To put it in perspective, our distorted first impression of Charlie is her first new memory of her father in almost a decade. Regaining her trust is an uphill battle, and one that Sink does exemplary work making as difficult as humanely possible. Ellie is more or less an intensified version of Sink’s Stranger Things character, albeit with a vocabulary that swaps out bubblegum snark for the kinds of barbed, crass insults and slurs that would never pass a screening test at Netflix. With no more than a week to live, and no intention of telling her as much, the poetry loving teacher within Charlie is pitted against his daughter in a war of words, determined to pull her out from the bitter shell she’s built around herself, all so he can die content that he has made amends for the worst mistake of his life.

So you can understand then, what makes The Whale such a difficult film to watch, even amongst the rest of Aronofsky's filmography. It's not the extreme prosthetics or the bodyshaming social commentary that drives the horror here, but rather the intensity of the conversations which they spark. That said, if you can stomach the high-intensity drama and gut-wrenching back and forth debates between its leading pair, the catharsis waiting on the far end of this film nothing short of beautiful. Despite its claustrophobic camerawork, haunting score and the tragic emotion of Fraser's trembling eyes beneath his prosthetic body, The Whale is ultimately a film about optimism and inner-honesty. Fraser, in the unquestionable best performance of his career, pours everything into persuading us to look past the ostensible ugliness to see what makes each and every one of us “amazing”, even at our lowest when we've lost sight of the things that used to make us proud.


Reviewed at Venice Film Festival 2022.

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