The Whale Movie Review


Growing up in a household where my father is known as the “unofficial movie critique,” I learned to be very judgmental or selective when watching or reviewing films. To my father, unless the movie isn’t “oh my god dude”  good like the whale was, then it isn’t worth watching. Judging by the tears streaming down our faces as we exited the movie, I’d say it’s a film that’s 100% worth 1 hour and 57 minutes of your time.

“The Whale” is a loathed film, but it also features excellent performances.

It gawks at its central figure’s grotesquery under the guise of sentimentality, but it also offers sharp exchanges between its characters that ring with bracing honesty.  It’s the kind of movie you should see if only to have an informed, thoughtful discussion about it, but it’s also the kind of movie you probably won’t want to watch.

This is consistent with Darren Aronofsky’s films in general, which may be difficult to see. Whether it’s Jennifer Connolly’s drug addict in “Requiem for a Dream,” Mickey Rourke’s aging athlete in “The Wrestler,” Natalie Portman’s obsessed ballerina in “Black Swan,” or Jennifer Lawrence’s besieged wife in “mother!” the director is notorious for putting his actors (and his audiences) through the wringer. 

What distinguishes those films from “The Whale” is their intention, whether it’s the magnificence of their creativity or the pleasure of their outrage. Those films have unpredictability, an undeniable audacity, and a masterful style. They contain sights you’ve probably never seen before, but they’ll surely stick with you.

“The Whale” may appear to be kinder at first glance, but its major goal appears to be to put the camera in front of Brendan Fraser, who is encased in a fat costume that makes him appear to weigh 600 pounds, and encourage viewers to wallow in his degeneration. By the end of the film, we are supposed to pity him or at least sympathize with his physical and psychological condition.

However, the general atmosphere for this mountain of a man is one of morbid fascination. As he attempts to get up from the couch, he knocks over an end table; as he Googles “congestive heart failure,” he stuffs candy bars into his mouth. We can tsk-tsk all we want between popcorn and Junior Mints while watching Fraser’s “Charlie” gulp greasy fried chicken straight from the bucket or inhale a massive meatball sub so quickly that he nearly chokes to death. The message that “The Whale” sends us home appears to be: thankful to God it’s not us.

Within the extremes of this method of acting, Fraser gives more warmth and empathy to the part than the script allows. Charlie is a college writing professor who teaches his students online from behind the security of a black square. And it’s a warm and resonant sound, full of dignity and wit. Fraser has been missing for a time, but his contradictions—his intimidating bulk and mischievous spirit—have always made him an intriguing film presence. He uses his eyes to offer us a look into Charlie’s charming but wounded soul here, and the nuance he’s able to portray goes a long way toward making “The Whale” acceptable.

He’s also hampered by a screenplay that expresses every emotion in awkward, groan-inducing ways. At his most desperate, panicked times, Charlie calms himself by reading or reciting a student’s acclaimed essay on Moby Dick, which serves as the film’s title and will become more significant. As he rises, naked, and lumbers through the living room, down the hall, and into the bedroom with a walker, he depicts the elusive white whale of Herman Melville’s story. You’re supposed to be astonished at the amazing makeup and prosthetic work on exhibit at this point, but you’re more likely to roll your eyes at the text.

“He thinks his life will be better if he can just kill this whale, but in reality, it won’t help him at all,” he intones in a painfully obvious bit of symbolism. “This book made me think about my own life,” he adds as if we couldn’t figure that out for ourselves.

A few visitors, most notably Hong Chauas, his nurse, and lifelong friend, Liz, interrupt the routine of his days. She’s sincerely loving yet firm, adding a welcome spice to otherwise drab proceedings. The excellent Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, has lighted Charlie’s flat in such a constantly gloomy and dreary manner to indicate his misery that it’s suffocating.

The realization that the entire film would take place within these restricted confines sends a shudder up your spine. And the choice to depict this narrative in a boxy, 1.33 aspect ratio heightens the sensation of claustrophobia even more.

However, the presence of yet another visitor—an eager, pushy religious missionary portrayed by Ty Simpkins—feels completely contrived. Charlie allowing him inside the flat on many occasions makes little sense, even if Charlie feels he is dying and wants to make atonement. “I’m not interested in being rescued,” he tells the young man. Nonetheless, Sink and Simpkins’ discussions bring some much-needed liveliness and emotional reality. The subplot of their strange connection feels like it belongs in a whole different and much more intriguing film.

Meanwhile, “Stranger Things” actress Sadie Sink appears as Charlie’s rebellious, estranged daughter, Ellie; her mother was married to Charlie before he came out as homosexual. 

While their first reunion in many years is heavy on exposition about the agony and discomfort of their separation, the two finally settle into a fascinating, spiky relationship. Sink, like Chau, offers immediacy and accessibility to the character of the moody but brilliant adolescent, and her presence helps “The Whale” significantly. Her similarity to Fraser is equally uncanny, especially in her expressive eyes.

The Whale’s ending is devastating since it signifies the end of Charlie’s life. He sought to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), and the two made significant progress during the film. In the last minutes of the film, Charlie begs Ellie to read her thesis about Moby Dick to him while he attempts to approach her on his own, revealing that Ellie’s words have been supporting him through his anguish and suffering all along. At the end of the film, Charlie dies, and a bright white light beams on his ascension to an idealistic portrayal of heaven.

Throughout The Whale, Charlie reads from Ellie’s middle school Moby Dick essay, which as stated before was her essay,  revealed at the end of the film. Charlie retained Ellie’s essay not just because she was his daughter, but because he thought it was a genuine piece of writing.

Charlie was frequently irritated with his students because they gave him generic answers to problems or wrote what they felt would please him enough to receive a decent score. Ellie’s essay, on the other hand, had a strong point of view that expressed how she felt about the story and Captain Ahab. Charlie treasured that because it was honest in a manner that neither he nor his students were. 

The Whale addresses a variety of issues, including guilt from growing up in a severely religious environment, sexuality, and the yearning for connection. The strong topic in the film is redemption. The Whale establishes Charlie’s desire to be forgiven by Ellie, which he believes is the only way to be free of his previous misdeeds. Thomas, too, wants to be redeemed by reintroducing Charlie to Christianity, and he works hard to accomplish so. The film implies that redemption must be earned, and Charlie works hard for it, but that it must also stem from a desire to make apologies in the first place.

“The Whale” will always be one of my favorite films. Besides superb acting and emotion, it also allows the viewer to put themselves in the shoes of “Charlie” and feel his pain and suffering. But also to teach us that beauty and wonderful things may arise from the most difficult situations.

Like Brendan Fraser said at the “Critics Choice Awards” after winning ” Best Actor”, “If you’re, like a guy like Charlie, who I played in this movie in any way struggle with obesity or you just feel like you’re in a dark sea. I want you to know that if you too, can have the strength to just get to your feet and go to the light, good things will happen”.

Brendan Fraser’s acceptance of this difficult role does not simply bring out the whale within him. Put the courage and strength, a whale if you will, in all of us.