2022, R, 117 min. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Dec. 23, 2022
It’s not outlandish to say that Darren Aronofsky is a little obsessed with religion. Even before his biblical epic Noah, the controversial director dabbled in religious imagery and allegories, and continues to explore the depths of religious trauma with his adaptation of The Whale.
Aronofsky is one to challenge his audience, for better or for worse, and never shies away from dark imagery and grungy characters. The Whale is no exception – all set in the apartment of an English teacher, Charlie (played by Fraser), who is struggling with grief and depression, which has manifested in an eating disorder.
Often when eating disorders are portrayed by the media it’s anorexia or bulimia, and more often than that, the ones suffering from these disorders are portrayed as too thin. The Whale looks at another kind of eating disorder – binge eating – which is a difficult one to tackle visually, mostly due to society’s ongoing fatphobia as perpetuated by the media. There’s nothing consciously sinister about The Whale’s use of Charlie’s eating disorder (the original play was, in fact, written from experience), but Aronofsky’s adaptation is cruel, not just to Charlie’s character, but to all of them.
In claustrophobic Academy ratio, The Whale dives in with a shot of Charlie watching gay pornography on his computer, fumbling from shock when a knock at the door startles him. He begins to pant, searching for a piece of paper with an essay on the novel Moby Dick that he urgently needs to hear read if this is, in fact, the moment he’s dying. The essay is simple, and expresses the sorrow the writer felt when reading the book, particularly how the chapters on the whale made the writer reflect on their own depression. It’s overtly the theme of the film, an upfront reminder to the audience that the movie you are about to watch is a soul-crushing eulogy.
The knock at the door is from a missionary, Thomas (Simpkins), a kid who is spreading the gospel before the end times. Not too long after his appearance, Charlie’s nurse and friend Liz (Chau) enters and is punched in the gut at the sight of him, an upsetting trigger that reminds her of her own grief. It’s clear from the beginning that Charlie and Liz have a bond formed over their church-related trauma, and Thomas’ assertive presence constantly forces them to reflect on their shared pain. They both grieve over what was lost to them, and what will be lost to them, which is the imminent death of Charlie by prolonged suicide. The film never elicits hope for Charlie, and Liz sheds many a tear over the impending passing of her dear friend.
Charlie is placed in a hellish purgatory in The Whale. Fraser often brings a warmth to Charlie that the film desperately needs, but his positivity is only an ember in a fire dying in the pouring rain. His daughter, Ellie (Sink), is a nasty character, an angsty teenager whose wrath is caused by her father leaving her at the age of 8. Sink isn’t given much to do but brood in a recliner, cracking jokes at the expense of her father’s stature, a terrible daughter whose hatred is spiteful and cruel. There’s nothing redeemable about her character outside Charlie’s love for her, his insistence that she is his greatest achievement, but nothing outside his innate optimism really shows Ellie’s potential goodness to an audience.
The Whale never escapes the trappings of its theatrical origins, and Aronofsky conducts the space as such not only in the singular setting of Charlie’s apartment, but in the characters’ expository dialogue, and the metaphoric use of imagery, like the ongoing rain that pounds on Charlie’s windows. Everyone is always yelling at each other, and being relentlessly mean, monologuing their suffering at each other but never with each other. There’s no empathy for Charlie, Liz, Ellie, or Thomas, and in a film that’s designed to evoke that in its audience, it ultimately fails.