The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022) Directed by Darren Aronofsky

A stinging, ponderous, agonizing self-destruction is the ordeal endured by reclusive English professor Charlie, a morbidly obese man who tries to redeem himself by getting closer to his estranged teenage daughter before his exhausted heart stops beating. A resurgent Brendan Fraser plays this depressive and complex character who is an exemplification of the insatiable miserabilism of director Darren Aronofsky’s work. After having exhausted his fervent talent in the mastery of psychological realism in relentlessly formal spectrums, some enduring, others simply forgettable, Darren Aronofsky returns with an austerity worthy of admiration; but also, to be questioned as one of the most infertile films of his career.

The Whale suggests itself to be an agglutination of the most paradigmatic in Aronofsky’s filmography. It may turn out to be as reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream (2000) as it is of The Wrestler (2008). It even evokes a certain psychological delirium of his expressionistic and single masterpiece of his career, the tenaciously formalistic Pi (1998). It is an apparent pastiche of Aronofsky’s best as a filmmaker, albeit at his most unproductive. Much happens in the achingly dreary reality of the lonely and pessimistic Charlie, the nihilist who cries out for redemption and mercy without giving us enough reason to elicit that kind of empathetic reciprocity for his existentialist suffering, but when you come to fully understand that this multi-diversity of drama is in reality an inconsequential and platitudinous routine, The Whale goes from being a transcendent experience to a hopelessly irrelevant one.  

First and foremost, The Whale’s uncompromising priority is to establish the monotony of a despondent man in physical and metaphysical self-flagellation as the gravitating unit of its grim plot. Committing such a narrative sin costs Aronofsky dearly, for in many respects the film feels illegitimate, in form and content. More of the latter, I think. Unwisely, the hermetic storytelling that takes place in the protagonist’s gloomy and desolate home, or rather lair, enters a vicious and cyclical circle with an obscene exacerbation of the internal and external pain suffered by this enormous character. As a narratological device, it works only during the taciturn first acts; then it quickly becomes a non-functional tool due to its little or no variability. There is no plot per se as one would traditionally expect, what there is, is a group of filmmakers framing this as if it were a sick spectacle about the miserable and pernicious life of a man with morbid obesity. A tough show to watch indeed, but still an unpardonable one.  

Darren Aronofsky skillfully and judiciously treated drug addiction in his imperfect but potent 2000 opus Requiem for a Dream, here he seems to analogously treat another addiction, gluttony as one of the least discussed drugs in the realm of addictions and compulsions. However, unlike Requiem for a Dream, The Whale bastardizes the seriousness of the subject by reducing it to a quasi-pornographic expression of polyphagia. The nucleus of the problem is the frivolous approach to issues of paramount importance in the contemporary era. Samuel D. Hunter writes the screenplay for this film, an adaptation of his own play of the same name, and as much as it strikes me as a work of cinema written with a sharp philosophical commentary, I find it to be imperiously theatrical in its overall composition. So much so that I believe its dramatic nature belongs more to a stage setting than to a filmic reality. The Whale’s plasticity never supports its thesis; in effect, it is very artificial without realizing it.  

The film introduces its protagonist for the first time, not physically, but only vocally. Charlie is an English teacher who, due to his unhealthy size, is unable to do face-to-face classes, so he does them virtually. We see the faces of his students; we only hear him as he keeps his webcam turned off. Aronofsky’s camera stealthily presents Charlie’s hermit life in his dark living room where he is stuck most of the day on his messy couch. His loyal friend Liz, played by Hong Chau, is the only one who takes care of him. Charlie refuses to go to the hospital for financial reasons apparently, and his health is deteriorating more and more. Liz, who works as a nurse, knows that Charlie’s days are numbered; doom is closer than Charlie thinks. Charlie’s psychological state seems to live in the past, with his profound mistakes and his invasive guilt, although he does not seem to be aware of his fragile situation, his unconscious somehow or other warns him that the end of his existence is near. For this reason, Charlie decides to establish a new relationship with his daughter who he abandoned when she was only 8 years old, now his daughter is an adolescent, rebellious, stubborn, cruel and resentful. She lives with her mother, who is an alcoholic and has been separated from Charlie for a long time.  

The script discerns extremely well the possibilities that a plot with these emotional and cathartic characteristics can offer to develop a sober but intense drama. With parsimonious visuals, the camera movements design the self-destructive world of The Whale as a rather theatrical chamber drama. The camera pans inherent in its economical layout create a compelling emotional weight, undeniably formidable, yet they feel alienated from the expressive maximalism of Brendan Fraser’s performance. As Charlie begins to confess his deepest sorrows to his apathetic daughter, the narrative shapes a tragedy that sacrifices honesty for predictability. The camera makes us witness this blatant mistake and regrettably there is no turning back to save this cinematic martyrdom.  

Atheism is proposed as the protagonist and religious faith as the antagonist. At molecular levels the plot advances with an enigmatic and thought-provoking philosophical manifesto, but it rapidly becomes frustrating when once again the “obesity” factor intervenes to be the only instrument to weave the emotional drama. The elimination of the intellectual for the inane textures of an unwarranted sentimentality. Let’s say that the film lives obsessed with wanting to be shocking, and arbitrarily forces you to empathize with its central character with a grotesque and perverse exhibition of an obese man suffering in a perpetual conformism with his comorbidities; a demagogic method of resolving complexities. Brendan Fraser’s valiant performance is probably the only genuine strength in this film, although his portrayal of Charlie seems elementary at first glance, there is no denying that his tortuous acting physiognomy is laudable. 

What does The Whale want to tell us that we don’t already know? Perhaps Darren Aronofsky wanted to reveal, or spiritually prove, that redemption exists even in its most nihilistic facets. Likewise, religious faith is contrasted with the idealism of love, evoking an interesting interchangeability between sometimes antithetical dimensions. Such as Charlie’s homosexuality with his poetic fascination with literature, and its metaphors. I find the connotations in The Whale astounding, but the objectives reprehensible. In short, a demoralizing and unsettling experience that has no idea how to give materiality and authenticity to this story on the big screen. The Whale sells you an idea but doesn’t know how to give it the necessary value to make it worth the price of seeing it.  


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.