We watch movies because we seek entertainment, but at the same time we watch them because we want to be reassured that our world views are correct, or maybe we watch them because we want to be challenged, made to believe that something outside of our realm of thinking exists, surprising us in the most unexpected way. What’s it going to take for a movie to move us, to touch us, to shake us? Is it a great central performance? Is it the underlying theme that life is for living till the very last second? Is it a story of love and grief and despair? Let me introduce you to Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, premiering in competition at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.
Charlie is an English professor for an online university, and he hasn’t left his home in many years. His overeating, due to a grief-related depression, has made him severely obese, and he lives stranded on his couch, often assisted by his caring, loving nurse Liz. His health is quickly deteriorating, and he hasn’t much time left to live. He’s particularly attached to a passage from an essay about Moby Dick, written by someone who presumably was very close to him. His final days are bound to pass uneventfully, if it wasn’t for two sudden and surprising visits he receives: one from a young missionary and one from his estranged daughter, with whom he’s desperately been trying to reconnect. From this moment on, like a small flame that turns into a fire, the feelings he’s been trying for years to repress are rekindled, making him come to terms with the person he once was and the person he’s become.
Darren Aronofsky, one of the most talented yet controversial mainstream American filmmakers of this century, has never been known for being open to artistic compromise. Remember the reactions to mother! and Noah? He was accused of being self-indulgent, self-aware, sometimes even too bold and heavy-handed in his approach to filmmaking, which is why I was very concerned when I learned that his new project would be the adaptation of a play centering on a gay man who, essentially, decides to eat himself to death. My concerns were mostly unwarranted. The Whale plays like a straightforward single-location melodrama, but Aronofsky drives it home with unexpected emotional sensitivity, listening to his characters and their troubles, empathizing with them rather than pitying them, with a human understanding that he hasn’t shown since The Wrestler. It’s a film that never feels claustrophobic despite the stage roots, with the camera moving sinuously around Charlie’s house but never feeling like an unwanted guest.
The Whale wouldn’t be as effective if it wasn’t for the incredible lead performance given by Brendan Fraser. Aronofsky has been known to cast “outcasts” in the past for his redemption stories, and I don’t think anyone could have played Charlie the way Fraser did. He plays the role as if it is the last thing he’ll ever do on this earth, filling the character with such a heartwarming humanity, with such genuine compassion that it’s impossible not to be touched by this powerhouse of a performance. Forget the suit he’s wearing: it’s his heart that gives The Whale its pulse, he dominates the film with awe-inspiring ease and it would be a crime if this performance were to be overlooked by awards bodies, when that time comes. His supporting cast deserve strong notices too: Hong Chau is pitch perfect as the testy but affectionate nurse, Sadie Sink’s Ellie is more than just a disgruntled estranged daughter, while Samantha Morton is pure fire in the one, heartbreaking sequence she shares with Fraser.
The Whale isn’t a perfect movie, it has writing writing flaws in at least one character (something about Ty Simpkins’ missionary doesn’t add up), and it can be accused of being too sappy, too melodramatic in some of its sequences (but hey, isn’t this an Aronofsky movie?) but the whole picture feels like a big, emotional, cathartic experience that reminded me of the power that cinema can have.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. A24 will release The Whale only in theaters on December 9.