Brendan Fraser gives his all as a morbidly obese man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter before his death.
After causing chaos on the Lido in 2015 with Mother!, Darren Aronofsky returns to Venice with a film no less likely to divide audiences – based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, The Whale depicts the final week in the life of a morbidly obese man who has developed an eating disorder in the years following his boyfriend Alan’s death by suicide, specifically starvation. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) spends his days confined to his Idaho apartment, subsisting on takeout and groceries delivered to him by Alan’s sister Liz (Hong Chau) while teaching online English classes to college students, where he keeps his laptop camera off at all times, worried that his students will be disgusted by his appearance.
Realising his eating disorder is going to kill him soon, over the course of a single week Charlie attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who is still furious at him for leaving her and her mother Mary (Samantha Morton) eight years ago to be with Alan’s. Meanwhile, meek missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comes across Charlie in a state of distress while going door-to-door preaching about the New Life cult, and begins visiting daily in an attempt to save Charlie’s eternal soul.
But Charlie is resigned to his fate. The past eight years have been a form of slow suicide for him, spurred by guilt for what he put his family through when he left them, and for being unable to save his boyfriend. He punishes himself with food – he eats until he vomits and then eats some more. In this manner it’s no different than drugs or alcohol, more conventional methods of self-annihilation.
The difference is that fatness is particularly repugnant by societal standards, and Charlie, weighing 600lbs and unable to walk unaided, would be little more than a carnival freakshow to more people than would like to admit it. The words ‘pathetic’ and ‘disgusting’ are thrown around, but we never gain a sense as to why Charlie’s relationship with food is so toxic, which further stigmatises his eating disorder and fatness more generally.
As someone who is fat, has been fat all her life, has a difficult relationship with food and weight, and frequently has to endure hateful treatment from complete strangers as a direct result of my being fat, my understanding and reaction to The Whale is informed by that lived experience. I know what it’s like to be treated as less than human, and deeply wish The Whale would have done more to dig into the prevalent notion (subconscious or not) that fat people are any less deserving of dignity, respect, and love.
Of course Charlie is an extreme case, one who has chosen to eat himself to death out of deep depression, but I worry that presenting fatness as some sort of moral failing will only do more to make life difficult for those of us who will never be thin, no matter how many diets we try, how many meals we skip, or how many hours we spend at the gym. Weight is a highly personal matter and there is something grotesque in the idea someone with a binge eating disorder should be treated with any less care or empathy than someone with a restrictive eating disorder such as anorexia.
Nevertheless, Fraser – in his first major role for almost a decade – imbues Charlie with warmth and optimism despite the layers of make-up, prosthetics, and video effects. He captures Charlie’s deep guilt and sadness around how he has lived his life, and an aching desire to love and be loved that others have a hard time seeing as they can’t get past his appearence. It’s a pleasure to see Fraser given a role he can put his heart and soul into, and as someone who has been vocal about his own trauma and experience with weight gain, he feels sympathetic to Charlie’s situation, which saves The Whale from turning into a ghoulish spectacle or a very artfully shot episode of TLC’s exploitative reality show ‘My 600lb Life’.
It’s a story about a flawed father trying to do right by his daughter before it’s too late – yes, yes, comparisons to The Wrestler are inevitable – and Sadie Sink is a perfect foil to Fraser, in a tricky role given that 18-year-old Ellie is an antagonistic brat (“She’s evil!” her exasperated mother tells Charlie). She captures the anger and sadness that comes from parental abandonment, as well as an underlying cleverness that is obscured by meanness. It’s a strong ensemble – Chau and Morton are utilised effectively too, showing two different sides of the despair those closest to Charlie have developed given his situation.
Aronofsky isn’t a particularly empathetic filmmaker (at times his work feels cruel, such as Requiem for a Dream) and there’s an austerity to the staging of The Whale, in the darkness of Charlie’s apartment and the harsh strings of Rob Simonsen’s score, but these pair well with the softness and occasional wry humour of Fraser’s performance, to create a film that – while not without flaws – reflects tenderly on shame, guilt, and the human impulse to care and be cared for.
Recurring imagery throughout The Whale evokes the ocean, be it a passage of an essay about Moby Dick, brief flashbacks to a trip the family took to the beach when Ellie was younger, or the rain which pours outside Charlie’s apartment. The water suggests an imminent cleansing, and fits into Aronofsky’s well-established interest in biblical allusion (it’s hard to not think of the story of Jonah and the Whale too, with its themes of rebirth and redemption). Who doesn’t long for acceptance and peace, particularly after enduring great pain?
Published 4 Sep 2022
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