The Whale: Who would have guessed that Darren Aronofsky would be the most limited of all the top-shelf auteurs in Venice’s significant return year? The screen is cropped to 1:33 at the beginning of his latest competition film, The Whale, with that exact intention, which turns out to be the most fitting for a little, personal film about a very huge guy.
The Wrestler and Black Swan, released in 2008 and 2010, respectively, essentially cemented Venice as an Oscar launching pad, precisely as the festival faced a fight on two fronts with Telluride and Toronto. Aronofsky originally asserted his mark at the festival with The Fountain in 2006. The Whale, on the other hand, shows the filmmaker is very much back as the Oscar bellwether, cutting the line to position a never-better Brendan Fraser at the head of the Best Actor race after his stint in the self-indulgent desert with Noah and Mother!
If you didn’t know that The Whale was based on a play, you’d figure it out quite soon thanks to the arch, mannered language and a schematic framing device involving an essay about Melville’s Moby-Dick. Everything takes place in a dark sitting room. However, the instant barrier that this first establishes quickly dissipates, in large part due to Fraser’s fully committed performance, which renders adverbs like “brave” and “fearless” essentially meaningless.
In his role as Charlie, he instructs English to pupils who are perplexed as to why his Zoom screen is always blacked out. Charlie says that his webcam isn’t functioning, but the truth is that he is embarrassed by his physique since, in addition to being morbidly obese, he is now on the verge of death, as shown by the film’s menacing day-by-day countdown.
The bizarre co-dependent idyll of Charlie and his nurse best friend Liz (Hong Chau) is threatened by two intrusions: Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a zealous missionary from the end-of-the-world religious group New Life, and Charlie’s teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned when she was eight years old.
Thomas wants to save Charlie’s soul, but Ellie isn’t concerned about the elderly guy at all—that is, until she learns that he has thousands of dollars saved up for her college expenses. But first she has to go through high school, so Ellie enlists Charlie to help her with her schoolwork. When Charlie’s unhappy and deeply wounded ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) shows up, this, his first true opportunity to connect with his daughter, is put on hold.
When the first shock of seeing Dudley Do-Right in such bad form wears off, the makeup features, particularly his thinning hair, doughy face, and swollen stomach, virtually disappear, which is a credit to Fraser’s very heartfelt depiction of Charlie. But it’s also a testament to Aronofsky’s skill as a filmmaker that Charlie never assumes any weird or hideous characteristics; Ellie, a friendless Facebook bully who clearly has ability but chooses to wallow in her own animosity, is the one who does that. These are by far the worst moments in a movie that actually works best when Fraser is the center. Ellie takes a particularly sadistic interest in Thomas and coaxes an unexpected confession out of him.
Even while this would first seem to be a departure for Aronofsky, there are always links to be made. The twilight hero plainly references Wrestler, but The Fountain and Noah (2014) are less visibly influenced by the religious notion of the righteous path/divine duty. The most apparent similarity, though, is with Ellen Burstyn’s strung-out character Sara in Requiem for a Dream (2000); Charlie symbolizes a comparable, very physical form of bodily horror, bound by a self-punishing urge to eat that becomes more comprehensible as the movie goes on.
Given the positive critical reception for Florian Zeller’s The Father, a similarly inventive filmed-stage production, it’s not difficult to imagine The Whale receiving similar awards buzz. In addition to Fraser, the film also stars Samantha Morton and the excellent Hong Chau, who can command attention with the flick of a cigarette. A genuine and poignant portrayal of human fragility, tinged by its major character’s misguided or even mistaken optimism, is well within its sights as is Best Picture. Let’s just say that when the credits have rolled, a lot of intriguing questions remain.