“The Whale” is a film that presents viewers with a conflicting experience. On one hand, it showcases excellent performances that captivate and engage.
On the other hand, it shamelessly exploits its central figure’s grotesque transformation under the pretense of sentimentality.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, known for pushing boundaries, the film is a challenging watch that aims to provoke discussion. While it may not possess the same verve or artistic prowess as Aronofsky’s previous works, “The Whale” offers a compelling portrayal of a troubled character and features remarkable performances.
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Gawking at the Grotesque
The film initially presents itself as a gentler experience, but it quickly becomes apparent that its main focus is wallowing in the deterioration of its protagonist, Charlie, portrayed by Brendan Fraser in a remarkable physical transformation.
Through scenes of Charlie struggling with his weight and indulging in unhealthy habits, the film invites a sense of morbid fascination rather than genuine empathy. Viewers may find themselves torn between pity and voyeuristic curiosity, with the underlying message seemingly being gratitude for not sharing Charlie’s plight.
Intent and Execution
While Aronofsky’s previous films have embraced daring themes and unconventional storytelling, “The Whale” lacks the same intent and execution.
Rather than exploring the deeper impulses and indulgences that drive its characters, the film merely points and stares at them. Aronofsky’s depiction of Charlie’s isolation within his squalid apartment often leans on shock value and shame, losing the opportunity for a more profound understanding. Despite this, Brendan Fraser manages to inject warmth and humanity into the role, elevating the character beyond what is provided on the page.
Clunky Emotion and Groan-Inducing Symbolism
One of the film’s drawbacks is its screenplay, which resorts to clunky dialogue to spell out every emotion, often to a groan-inducing effect.
In moments of desperation, Charlie finds solace in reading or reciting a student’s essay on Moby Dick, offering symbolism that feels forced and overly obvious. These instances hinder the film’s ability to engage viewers on an emotional level and may lead to eye-rolling reactions instead.
Performances that Shine
Despite the screenplay’s limitations, the performances in “The Whale” shine through. Hong Chau delivers a standout portrayal as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and friend, infusing the film with much-needed care and authenticity.
Sadie Sink, known for her role in “Stranger Things,” impresses as Ellie, Charlie’s estranged daughter, providing an immediacy and relatability to her character. Both Chau and Sink contribute to improving the film significantly, and their casting adds to the overall effectiveness of their respective roles.
Contrivances and Missed Opportunities
The inclusion of a church missionary, played by Ty Simpkins, feels contrived and doesn’t fully make sense within the narrative. While Charlie seeks to make amends before his assumed demise, his interactions with this character lack coherence.
The friendship that develops between Ellie and the missionary brings a sense of life and emotional truth to the film, but it also feels disconnected from the main storyline. This subplot presents a missed opportunity to explore a more intriguing dynamic.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography adds to the film’s somber tone by using dim lighting to emphasize Charlie’s sorrow. The decision to confine the entire story within the cramped space of Charlie’s apartment, presented in a boxy, 1.33 aspect ratio, creates a sense of dour claustrophobia. While these aesthetic choices effectively establish the desired atmosphere, they may also contribute to a feeling of oppression throughout the film.
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“The Whale” is a film that elicits conflicting responses from its viewers. It features remarkable performances that showcase Brendan Fraser’s talent and charisma, bringing warmth and humanity to an otherwise problematic portrayal.
However, the film’s focus on grotesque fascination and its tendency to rely on clunky symbolism hinder its potential impact. Despite these flaws, “The Whale” serves as a starting point for thoughtful discussions, although its challenging and divisive nature may deter some audiences.