Review: 'The Whale' is Misery Porn that Exploits More than Empathizes

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 9, 2022

Brendan Fraser in "The Whale"
Brendan Fraser in "The Whale"  (Source:A24)

You needn't look far into Darren Aronofsky's filmography to see that the filmmaker is precious about portraying characters as downward-spiral, self-immolating projections of the ties that bind them. In "Requiem for a Dream," Aronofsky is concerned with drug addiction and the way drug abuse can alter the physical and emotional states of a human. In "Black Swan," addiction returns to the forefront, although this time the drug is fame and success.

That addiction to depict addiction returns in "The Whale," an exploitative drama that may be the most egregious of Aronofsky's films. Haphazardly vacillating between teary-eyed character drama and a dirge about fleeing death, the film wastes its talented performers on turgid, self-fulfilling gospel. Fulfilling for who, Aronofsky?

Adapted from a one-location play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, "The Whale" concerns itself with the story of 600-pound Charlie (Fraser), an English teacher who teaches online courses to sustain the sedentary lifestyle he adopted after his boyfriend committed suicide years earlier. That lifestyle has led to congestive heart failure, and Charlie only has days to live. So, with the end nearing, Charlie tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), although his inability to walk on his own leaves him in the self-made prison of his dreary apartment in Moscow, Idaho.

From the outset, "The Whale" pulls all the stops to make the viewer understand that Charlie is just a really nice man who can't help himself, weighed down by the heartbreak and depression that ensued after his boyfriend's suicide. But once that fact is made abundantly clear, Aronofsky doesn't stop. Everything Charlie does must be indicative of his good nature and incapability to stop eating. Other characters can't stop talking about how much of a good guy Charlie is, even the young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) whose own insecurities are laid bare in an attempt to evangelize the film's message of forgiveness. Needless to say, the sermon becomes repetitive and tired quickly.

Quieter moments, like Liz consoling her dying friend and herself with a platonic cuddle, are constantly softened by awards clippings, or rather sequences that come off more as cloying than a reflection of the character's insecurities. And unfortunately, the entire film is rendered as if Aronofsky wants to make us feel bad about visiting a dying person who lives in Moscow, Idaho. The disdain is shown through the thin script, a collection of bloviations delivered like the profundities Aronofsky thinks they are. Luckily for the audience, they have the grace supplied by both Fraser and Chau to at least anchor each line with actual emotional heft.

While "The Whale" may function better as a one-location stage play, Aronofsky expands the canvas a bit, allowing for a deeper depiction of the dusty and decrepit town that Charlie lives in. But then the canvas shrinks immediately, this time in no small part due to the filmmaker's insistence on using the Academy Ratio (1.33:1 aspect ratio) to emphasize just how dominant Charlie is in every frame. It's a tactic that continues to reveal the ugliness beneath the surface of the film itself, showcasing just how exploitative the gaze of the camera is. The film doesn't pretend or even try to tackle the thorny issue of what it's like to be trapped in your body and environment. Rather, it relies on grotesquerie and self-help gospel to tie everything up nicely before the main character dies.

Simply put, "The Whale" is yet another attempt by Darren Aronofsky to use provocation to achieve empathy, though here we're treated to a story that has quiet disdain for its poor characters, their poor situations, and the poor, dying fat man at the center of it all. It's awards fodder at its most manipulative and grotesque.

"The Whale" premieres in theaters Dec. 9.