I love Darren Aronofsky and consider him my favorite American filmmaker. He’s not for everyone, weaving narratives with the sympathy of a cat playing with its prey before consumption, but I’ve always found his biting flavor more experiential than cutting. Some of his films are challenging, some baffling, and some downright beautiful, but the director’s obsession with obsession is more akin to a dish like an ortolan than it is something acrid, something burnt. Somehow his most sympathetic film thus far was Requiem for a Dream, a film that could only conjure pity and sorrow instead of empathy, but its combination of body horror and addiction were right in that sweet spot where we could begin to connection the director has with people that know something is hurting them and cannot stop it.
He’s returned to this type of experience with The Whale.
Nothing about this works without Charlie (Brendan Fraser) and his wide, curious, soulful eyes. Granted, there isn’t much for them to take in, but he turns them to the outside world with a faultless adoration for humanity and a desperate need to the species to live up to that belief. His apartment is dark, with few lights on, and they wouldn’t help Charlie teach his online classes very well as he keeps his camera off and blames technical issues. He leaves money for his pizza in the mailbox so the delivery guy, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), won’t see him. Charlie is over 600 pounds, having eaten himself to this state in guilt after leaving his family for a student only for the man to die. His daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), has sunken into a state of human hibernation in a den that’s made of knives, and her disgust with what he has become has become her entire personality. Charlie’s only true respite is an essay on Moby Dick, which he keeps like a talisman to stave off death and reads to calm his dying heart despite having it memorized in whole. Since Charlie to go to the hospital despite being in the beginning stages of congestive heart failure, his only friend and confidant Liz (Hong Chau) cares for him as he circles the drain, all the while begging him to seek help as he may have only a few days left to live.
Never having been a subtle filmmaker is a point in Aronofsky’s favor. He’s long worn his statements on his sleeve, with critical darling Requiem for a Dream being the blatant “drugs are bad” movie while others like Noah and mother! contain his distates for religion and adoration for environmentalism. He’s once again given us an obvious metaphor in a complicated package, asking the audience to look beyond what they might initially see and into the soul of it. This could easily be read as a film designed to fat-shame and it would be difficult to argue that point but I think he’s doing far more than that. Aronofsky has found a true empathy that simply doesn’t work without Fraser in the lead role. Casting this character was what held the film up for a decade but Fraser was finally selected for this grueling experience. This is not a film that is merely about a fat person, but rather an addict that is burying sorrow. A lot has been said about the perceived cruelty of The Whale while little is said about its wide-eyed adoration for its audience.
This doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy watch. Fraser’s character is fat and there are multiple instances in the film of people calling him “disgusting.” Again, much has been made of this and there’s a very serious discussion to be had about overeating, addiction, body-shaming, and outright hate but I think Aronofsky deftly drips all of these things into his tale. His characters have never been easy and he doesn’t make any bones about that, allowing the cruelty of humanity to wash over much of his work. The Whale tries a different tactic by allowing them to have their explosions and then work down to the humanity inside. It’s a journey instead of a portrait despite never leaving the darkened apartment in which the story is set. Fraser is doing the absolute most with his expressive and lovely face but it’s Hong Chau that keeps this whole thing functional. Her role as caregiver and as Charlie’s only real family grounds everything, allowing a biased and conflicted character to both prod Charlie in the right direction and enable him in his slow self-emolation of soul. That performance is crucial to separating this from a film that could easily go for fat-shaming. There’s a difference between being fat and what Charlie has done to himself, a difference that requires an external set of eyes to keep on track and I think Chau does an absolutely beautiful job interacting with Fraser onscreen. “I could stab you,” she cries out, terrified at the thought of losing Charlie. “What’s it going to do? My organs are two feet deep at least,” he quips in rely, really allowing those big baby blues to sparkle and drawing Chau’s character to charmed and frightened laughter. Moments like these keep everything together in a film where one misstep can take it all apart.
I’ve long wondered what happened between Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell. The two were the dream team for years, from Pi to Noah, and when the composer didn’t return I wondered if that part of my love for Aronofsky films was done. I’m pleased with new composer Rob Simonsen (who isn’t new in the world of film music, just new to Aronofsky films). What’s been crafted is a maritime score, haunting and thematic in a way that recalls Mark Korven’s score for The Lighthouse but with a touch more humanity. It’s hopeful tones mix with the drone of a horror film and the horns of a ship passing in the night, like Dan the pizza man and Charlie, and it all builds into a beautiful album to compliment the film.
I’ve got issues with Aronofsky’s latest but I think it’s sort of a miracle that he pulled this off at all. Everything is quite dissonant at first but it’s layered over itself into a fugue by the end, coming together to create an experience that is all of haunting, frightening, sad, and beautiful. There’s something special to this one that I think will be reevaluated in a few years, but for now I’m just going to marinate in what Aronofsky had to say about religion, sexuality, and addiction. It’s a powerful film and while it isn’t one of his best it’s still such a lovely, moving experience that I recommend.
The Whale is currently playing in theatres.