Content warning for eating disorders, fatphobia, self-harm, and emotional/verbal abuse.
If you ever need proof that film festival audiences can be completely bonkers, look no further than Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, a film that received a 97-year ovation at its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, and even a hearty round of applause at the much less ovation-prone TIFF press screening.
The Whale is awful, not deserving of applause so much as being shoved into a rocket and launched directly into the sun. If it didn’t star Brendan Fraser, a beloved cinema icon returning to leading-man status after a period of personal difficulty, I am utterly convinced this movie would be booed into oblivion. The smartest choice director Darren Aronofsky makes with his film is casting Fraser, thus rendering The Whale virtually bulletproof. Criticism of the film—including this review—will undoubtedly be buried under the praise being heaped on Fraser’s performance.
And let’s be clear, the actors are not the problem. What humanity, sympathy, and compassion exists in The Whale is there because of Brendan Fraser’s warmth and kindness radiating through his performance as Charlie, a 600 pound man who is housebound. Fraser inhabits Charlie with a sense of profound regret and self-recrimination which manifests outwardly in his weight gain. He also attempts to ascribe the shame attributed to Charlie by the script (Samuel D. Hunter adapted his own play for the screen) to Charlie’s guilt over abandoning his then eight-year-old daughter, Ellie, to be with his male lover, Alan. In the years since, Charlie is completely estranged from Ellie (Sadie Sink), and Alan died by suicide after a period of sleep deprivation and anorexia. Fraser makes his performance not about Charlie’s body but about Charlie’s regrets, his body is simply something to navigate within the cramped confines of Charlie’s apartment.
But Aronofsky, cinematically occupied with the limits and grotesqueries of the human body, DOES make the film about Charlie’s body. The sound design is appallingly focused on obscene eating sounds—if you do not like mouth sounds, The Whale is NOT for you—rendering a biological necessity disgusting in context of a fat person doing it, and Rob Simonsen’s portentous score swells ominously any time Charlie’s body is the focus of a scene. There is a thread of Charlie’s disordered eating being a form of self-harm, but Aronofsky seems uninterested in framing it that way, as much as making a spectacle of the big man binging, which in turn degrades Charlie and gives the audience permission to, say, laugh at a scene in which Charlie cannot bend enough to reach something he’s dropped.
A filmmaker is not responsible for their audience, but at a certain point, how a story is told does inform the audience’s reaction. The audience’s laughter and often audible revulsion are results of Aronofsky’s choices, which do not extend compassion to a man caught in an emotional maelstrom but turns obesity into a sideshow. But the story itself also never stops to consider that it reveals a lack of empathy and cruelty toward Charlie, and by extension obese people. Yes, there are real health implications to weighing over 600 pounds, but that can be portrayed without making Charlie’s body an object of revulsion. There is more sympathy and consideration given to the ballerinas torturing their bodies in pursuit of art in Black Swan than is given to Charlie, and I cannot help but think it’s because the ballerinas’ extreme thinness is considered aesthetically pleasing while Charlie is viewed as disgusting by the filmmakers.
Fraser, then, is actively working against the pitiless framing of Aronofsky and the script. He is mostly successful, as is Hong Chau, playing Charlie’s friend-cum-caretaker, Liz. Even when Liz hurls verbal abuse at Charlie, Chau infuses her performance with palpable concern and fear, as Liz is torn between wanting to prevent her friend’s imminent death and knowing she cannot save Charlie from himself. Fraser and Chau interpret their roles as if Charlie’s weight is part of a larger emotional cycle which neither directly addresses in their grief. The film, however, lacks matching empathy as scary music kicks in whenever Charlie eats or even moves, and the audience is invited to linger on the spectacle of Charlie’s body with appalled fascination. The Whale borders on body horror, but the real horror is the simple lack of compassion shown to a character in such clear emotional pain.
The Whale will be released exclusively in theaters on December 9, 2022.