Review by Phedias Christodoulides
I never expected to feel the need to review an Aronofsky film. I remember rather liking Black Swan when it came out, but at that time I was at the beginning of my cinephile days so I do not trust my judgment. Nevertheless, I hated and still hate Requiem for a Dream, one of the worst exercises in miserabilism ever made. Entering the movie theatre to watch The Whale with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found to be a good minor film with its heart in the right place. It is not really a film to write home about, with the exception of Brendan Fraser’s exceptional performance, but then I saw the reviews. According to the political pundits masquerading as film critics in the US, The Whale is a stagey, fat-phobic film that even Fraser’s performance fails to save. It is considered a film worse than Avatar and much worse than such nasty crap like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Decision to Leave, The Menu and others. Hence, a defense is in order.
The Whale is a film centering around Charlie (Fraser), a middle-aged teacher dying from morbid obesity. The film begins with him suffering a heart attack while masturbating to gay porn, and he is diagnosed with congestive heart failure by his friend and caregiver Liz (Hong Chau). She tells him he will die by the end of the week if he does not go to the hospital, but he refuses, ostensibly because he lacks health insurance, but really, because he does not want to live any longer. In the film we learn through gradual exposition that a few years ago he left his family and young daughter to enter a gay relationship with a student of his, the love of his life, only for the student to eventually commit suicide eventually because he could not accept his gayness due to his Evangelical Christian background. In response Charlie became a self-hating person, shutting himself at home and binge-eating himself to death out of grief. Realizing he is about to die, he makes one last effort to reunite with his long-estranged adolescent daughter (Sadie Sink) in a desperate attempt to somewhat redeem his life. As he says in the most poignant scene in the film: “I need to know I have done one thing right with my life.” In that respect, the film is similar to Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a deeply humanist film.
Let us first get the moronic accusations about fatphobia out of the way. Many journalists, beginning with Roxane “I’m clueless about cinema” Gay of the New York Times, have accused the film as perpetuating offensive stereotypes about overweight people. Gay argued that Aronofsky’s film is “gratuitous” fatphobic fiction because the way the camera centers on Charlie’s weight and binge-eating is humiliating. Her verdict, echoed by many others, is that The Whale is an “inhumane film about a very human being”. I found the film does the opposite: it is a humane attempt to examine dignity and humanity under physical and psychological pressure, including the pressure of imminent death. The film did not make me view Charlie as a freak or as particularly disgusting, but instead, as a kind person in dire need of help, understanding, and love. The film is not about addressing fatness and its resulting problems: Charlie could be dying from something else, such as anorexia or drugs, which can look equally or even more disgusting on screen as Requiem for a Dream indisputably proves. One of the more perceptive critics even said that food is a metaphor for all the hurt and pain that Charlie had to absorb in his life, which at the very least is a more plausible take than the fatphobia one.
The fatphobia accusation is based on Aronofsky’s direction, so let us examine that more closely. According to the critics, despite his good intentions, Aronofsky turned Fraser’s pain into spectacle. Now, it is true that Aronofsky focuses intensely both on Fraser’s emotional and physical pain and difficulties. He shows in close-up how difficult it is to live and move with such obesity, and he shows us the disgust with which certain people like the pizza delivery boy regard Charlie, including Charlie himself. He also inserts a couple of visceral binge-eating scenes with a menacing score which are indeed reminiscent of the more disturbing scenes in Requiem and are Aronofsky’s specialty. In contrast to that movie, however, they do not make the bulk of the film, and hence I consider them effective attempts at conveying Charlie’s lack of control over his condition. If they were repeated over and over, I’d agree that the film is misery porn, but it is not.
The issue is whether the direction provokes disgust in the audience, and whether the disgust attracts us to the film or not. Personally I did not feel any disgust towards Charlie, but obviously many critics did. Is there something wrong with me, or with the critics? One ought to consider the possibility that the direction is meant to implicate and challenge us to overcome our own instinctive disgust at obesity and see Fraser’s humanity underneath. This seems to be the case, especially given Charlie’s question to the youngster missionary that keeps visiting him in a misguided attempt to ‘save his soul’: “Do you find me disgusting?” In any case, I do not think that disgust makes the film more watchable: the binge-eating scenes are not enjoyable at all, making you almost feel sick, which is not how spectacle works, even if some people were certainly attracted to the movie because they find extreme suffering sensational. In that case, is that Aronofsky’s problem or the audience’s? In what is an exception for Aronofsky, I tend towards the latter.
Some critics have even accused the film of not-casting an actual obese actor in the role of a 600-pound recluse, and that prosthetics should stop being used to make people look fat. I ask: how many actors dying from obesity exist? Should we have them die on set too for more realism? What about other films concerning terminal illness? Must we have actors with terminal illness playing the roles? What would Orson Welles do without his fat suit? Should we re-assess his films as fat-phobic? Acting is all about attempting to inhabit another person with different experiences than yours, not reproducing yourself. It has always utilized makeup, wigs, costumes, probs and now special effects to transform people into someone different. It seems that American ‘film critics’ confuse cinema with reality TV. In any case, if it means anything, The Whale’s production team worked together with the Obesity Action Coalition to acquire insight into the lives of fat people, and OAC supported the film.
Let us now discuss what the film is actually about. As I already said, it concerns a grieving person’s attempt to find meaning and redemption within said suffering. Brendan Fraser’s performance is crucial to the movie and rightly praised. His kindly sad eyes are endearing, as is his childlike faith in other people’s good nature. Despite his suffering he often laughs, shows genuine interest in others and excitement about writing, his vocation. He is a good teacher in his online writing class, caring a lot for his students and trying in turn to get them to care enough to express themselves in their writing. He is definitely naïve here, as the general jadedness of our epoch cannot be changed by a single person’s willpower, but Charlie valiantly tries. When he realizes he is dying and tries to reconnect with his daughter Ellie, he refuses to accept that she might be a genuinely hateful person, despite her expressing loathing and hate towards him. Even when her mother (Samantha Morton) appears for a bit and tells him their daughter is evil, he refuses to believe that. All in all, he succeeds in making Charlie appear as a sensitive human person, not an obese monster (Aronofsky deserves some credit for that too though). His lack of glumness is crucial for that, escaping the danger of misery porn.
The film appropriately remains within the confines of Charlie’s poorly kept apartment and is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. This creates a claustrophobic setting a la Polanski that communicates Charlie’s own fatalistic sense of being trapped within himself. While some critics accused the film of thus seeming stagy (it is an adaptation from a play after all), I believe that the setting is appropriate. What is a bit stagy is the fact that the characters seem to take convenient turns to visit Charlie, and some of those conversations indeed seem contrived and artificial, such as Charlie’s discussion with his estranged wife late in the film.
The film has other weaknesses as well. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming is its depiction of Ellie. Ellie comes up with a mostly one-note outraged performance that is too over-the-top to seem realistic. It is understandable that she has hurt feelings from her father’s abandonment of the family, but she is so nasty to Charlie that she loses our sympathy, contrary to the intention of the film and to Charlie’s faith in his daughter’s kindness. A teenager is not simply angry and alienated, but also vulnerable and sensitive, and this is mostly missing from Sink’s performance. She indeed seems to be using Charlie to write her essays and nothing else, at least until the film’s final scene. Her relationship to the missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who accidentally interrupts Charlie as he is having his heart attack and then keeps visiting him is also problematic because it is not developed sufficiently. Apparently in her attempt to hurt him she accidentally caused him to happily reunite with his estranged family; this subplot exists only to highlight Charlie’s faith in his daughter’s essential goodness, a faith that nevertheless may be misguided as there is no evidence she was actually trying to help Thomas, despite Charlie’s opposite interpretation. Thomas is not so much a character as a symbol of the oppression and harm that religious indoctrination causes to people such as Charlie’s gay lover. Nevertheless, Charlie’s rebuke of him is powerful: “We would make love. Do you find that disgusting?”
The title is a both a reference to Charlie as well to Moby Dick. There are parallels between Ahab’s fanaticism and the evangelical Church, and more obviously between Ahab and Charlie. As the mysterious student essay that Charlie reads over and over says, “[Ahab] thinks his life will be better if he can just kill this whale, but in reality, it won’t help him at all”. Similarly, Charlie thinks his life will be better if he eats and eats, but it doesn’t help him at all. It could also be said that Thomas thinks his life will be better if he saves Charlie, but he is misguided as he is only trying to save himself. At the end of the film, it is revealed that the essay was written by Ellie years ago, and Charlie treasures it as proof of her honesty and hidden sensitivity.
A lot of what Charlie says may seem corny or naïve to a contemporary cynical audience, but the character’s naivete and faith in people is believable so that the film’s sentimentality is earned. The one hard-hitting, poignant realization comes from Liz: nobody can save anyone else if they don’t want to, each of our lives is ultimately our own responsibility. Charlie is dying from grief because he could not save Alan, but it was not up to him and not his responsibility. Hong Chau gives the 2nd-best performance as Liz, alternately scolding and indulging Charlie, revealing that she is unsure whether she should try to save her friend or make his last days as pleasant as possible. This is a very human, realistic reaction and I doubt there is a right answer. What is clear is that Liz loves and is full of empathy for him, encouraging the audience to feel the same.
Throughout the film we feel great affection for Charlie and want him to fight for life. Gradually it becomes clear that he is a self-loathing character that does not want to live but instead tries to redeem what he considers a failed life before dying. For people who know they are dying, it is indeed very important for them to have some control of how their life ends so that their death acquires some meaning in their eyes. I’d say Charlie does not really succeed in redemption as what he ought to have done is redeem his lover’s death by not collapsing with self-loathing and grief. As it is, his death is ultimately a waste. However, he does his best in the time that remains to him, namely, he succeeds in breaking through Ellie’s defenses to reveal her humanity and reconnect with her. His constant expressions of love for her – he repeatedly tells her how wonderful she is – are very moving, and ultimately disarm her.
Fraser shows us what it means to truly care about people. The film is a bit of old-fashioned humanism that is getting rare these days, so I will take it over the ambitious stupidities of Decision to Leave, Triangle of Sadness, and Bones and All. Its biggest achievement is having a likeable self-loathing character, something very difficult to achieve judging from insufferable films like Anomalisa. This is due to the fact that Fraser is not simply a self-loathing character, but also a character full of kindness and love for those around him.
PS. For a great movie with similar themes, I recommend Manchester by the Sea, one of the most moving movies of the 21st century.