From the first minute The whale is permeated with fear. Director Darren Aronofsky has long specialized in that kind of atmosphere; even when he works on the smallest scale, he conjures a growing horror from the mundane. His latest work echoes previous films like π Y Requiem for a Dream, both claustrophobic epics with thunderous scores and grim perspectives. But in The whale, which is an adaptation of the Samuel D. Hunter play, the sinister mood feels immediately at odds with the theme. The protagonist, Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser), is completely confined to his house and on the verge of death due to extreme binge eating. His confinement is low, but the source of his pain is deeply relatable: grief.
Charlie has been in a severe depressive state since the loss of his partner. Unable to care for himself, he has become a frustrating figure to friends, family, and strangers alike, all of whom continue to visit to have important and meaningful conversations with him. He refuses to seek medical attention despite being in obvious physical distress; instead, he allows only his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, to take her blood pressure at home, while she worries that she can’t do more for him. He is almost completely cut off from his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). (However, he tries to bridge the gap with Ellie by promising to do her homework.) The whale begins, Charlie has reached a point where it is impossible to reverse the decline in his health.
The situation turns horrible and pitiful, especially since Charlie, though resigned to the confines of his apartment, still yearns for some human interaction. Aronofsky, whose work of alienation-focused psychodramas also includes Black Swan Y Mother, gives into his hobby for feelings, but then refuses to change them. Some scenes attempt to present Charlie as likeable and complex, and Fraser’s performance, delivered through multiple layers of makeup and prosthetics, manages to be the most direct part of the film. (He’s also the most controversial.) Unfortunately, most everything else is stridently grim, a misery show that casts the central character of him as a zoo animal.
The overly precise structure of the story is partly to blame for its relentlessness. Hunter himself adapted the screenplay from his original work, and the film closely follows easy transitions, unraveling the mystery of Charlie’s situation through a series of encounters. First, a religious missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) knocks on Charlie’s door to find him in the middle of a cardiac event; Thomas, a stranger, keeps coming back because he is determined to save the soul of this doomed man. Next is Liz, who scolds Charlie for overeating while also providing him with meatball sandwiches whenever she passes, a passive witness to his binges (which are always played out with crude threat and Rob’s overwhelming punctuation). Simonsen).
Then comes Ellie, who hasn’t seen her father in years and looks at him with disgust, especially since he’s been so absent from her life. Charlie struggles in vain to free her daughter from her nihilistic perspective on life. Meanwhile, she and Thomas form a strange connection and begin to dig into Charlie’s past, trying to understand all the circumstances of the death that has torn him apart. But revealing the how and why of Charlie’s deep sadness isn’t as psychologically complicated as Hunter or Aronofsky seem to think it is, and besides, more time is spent gawking at Charlie’s physical tension.
The problem is that Aronofsky is paralyzed by Charlie in all the wrong ways, casting him as a moving house of horrors. That exhibitionist look clashes awkwardly with the supposed humanism of the story and Charlie’s insistence that “people are incredibleEven when they are being cruel. Fraser makes a powerful effort to project that tenderness: he doesn’t shy away from exposing Charlie’s self-destructive streak, but highlights the character’s abiding love for others, if not himself.
I never felt that nuance from Aronofsky’s staging. He turns the apartment into a dark and bitter sanctuary and often shows Charlie slowly shuffling behind and under her so that the character appears to be a looming monster. I’m not opposed to body horror, but the genre is better suited for vulgar purposes. The whale it comes across as noble and ultimately uplifting, but it just can’t make that sale. In the end, the project falls prey to the same trap as Charlie’s visiting critics: seeing only a symbol where they might have seen a person.