Stories of loss are a constant in film, as they are in life. At their best, films dealing with these topics can inform and enlighten audiences – can touch them emotionally. In some of his best work, director Darren Aronofsky has achieved this. Films like The Fountain and The Wrestler deal extensively with regret and grief, exploring the ties that bind us and what happens when they break. Aronofsky’s new film The Whale deals with similar subject matter but never reaches the emotional core of the earlier films. It is Aronofsky’s weakest film to date.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an English professor who teaches remotely (with his webcam turned off) and lives as a reclusive shut-in in an apartment in Idaho. He does so because he is unable to move and live comfortably, because Charlie weighs 600 pounds. It appears that the only constant person in his life prior to the start of the film is Liz (Hong Chau), who is a nurse and the sister of Charlie’s late partner Alan. Because he refuses to go to hospitals, claiming not to have the money to do so, Liz checks in on Charlie, providing the limited medical care available in the apartment. Liz also brings Charlie’s food to him. She is both savior and enabler, as along with blood pressure monitors and a wheelchair, we also see Liz bring fried chicken and large meatball subs to a man she knows is severely ill.
In the opening scene of the film, Charlie, while masturbating, begins to have what appears to be a heart attack. During this episode, a visiting missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) stops by the apartment and is able to help Charlie until Liz arrives. Liz’s diagnosis upon arrival is that Charlie is in the end stages of congestive heart failure, and is unlikely to live to see the next week without help. Thomas, who is connected to a church that Liz’s family was a part of, believes it is his mission to save Charlie’s soul during this time. Charlie wants to use his remaining time to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie is reluctant and understandably angry because Charlie left her and her mother Mary (Samantha Morton) years earlier when he fell in love with Alan, and he has not been in contact with her since. The interactions and connections of these five characters in the apartment over the course of the last five days of Charlie’s life make up the whole of the film.
To start out with the only strength of the film, it is the performances of Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau. Fraser, who has been good in limited dramatic work such as Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American previously, is excellent here. He loses himself in Charlie’s optimism and thoughtfulness as much as he does in the prosthetic makeup. There’s a real vulnerability to the performance, and it’s unfortunate that the script doesn’t live up to the humanity he gives to the character. Chau is also very good, playing Liz with humor and with heart. She cares for Charlie because he is her last connection to her brother, and believes that Charlie gave Alan the best years of his life, despite the constant internal battles Alan faced as a gay man living in the judgment of his father and his church. The scenes with Fraser and Chau together are the best parts of the film.
The other actors do not have the same effect. Because I have seen Morton and Sink both be very good before, I believe the material is to blame more than the performers. The film is written by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play. There are early scenes, such as Charlie struggling with the decision to eat a candy bar, and when he is getting ready for his daughter’s first visit which feel lived-in and powerfully genuine. But as more of the characters are introduced, the writing feels forced and very repetitive. Every scene with Fraser and Sink feels the same – she’s angry and he’s sorry. Morton’s Mary is written as having essentially given up on her daughter, calling her evil at one point, but her motivations for keeping Charlie out of Ellie’s life are muddled and seem inconsistent. There is a scene between Thomas the missionary and Ellie which is both poorly acted and poorly written. It also sets up a late-stage revelation for Charlie about Ellie’s character that seems completely unearned apart from Charlie’s consistent optimism. The film’s title, apart from the obvious dig at a large character, is also connected to a running bit with Charlie’s connection to an essay about Moby Dick. But the revelation, when it comes, feels trite.
The biggest mystery to me is why Aronofsky chose this project. Apart from general thematic similarities to his previous work, it covers much of the same ground as The Wrestler almost uncomfortably closely. Both are about men who have left daughters behind and are trying to reconnect because of impending death from heart trouble. Both include powerful lead performances from actors who had dropped largely from public consciousness. But beyond this, the essentially single-room setting means that Aronofsky’s visual style is largely missing from this film. He chose to shoot the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, mirroring the constricted and closed off nature of Charlie’s life. This is an interesting thematic decision, but only serves to make an already visually simple film feel more like a stage play. The inventiveness of The Fountain and Noah aren’t to be found here, nor the flourish of Black Swan or Mother! This is an odd and disappointing entry in an otherwise very strong filmography.
The Whale is now playing in theaters