Coming out of the Venice Film Festival, The Whale managed to capture the hearts and minds of everyone that saw it. The team up of Darren Aronofsky and Brendan Fraser took the festival circuit by storm, showing not only how a tragic story could bring hope, but how an actor that has been out of the spotlight for years could make a comeback to excite people in a new and interesting way. With all this buzz, I was skeptical walking into the press screening at TIFF 2022, but the film did not disappoint, and managed to be one of my favourite films at this year’s festival, even if I may never watch it again.
Starring Brendan Fraser as a college online English teacher named Charlie, The Whale wastes no time giving a sense of the daily struggles he faces. After facing tragedy Charlie has let himself go, and is now struggling with doing the most simple tasks around the home. Food has become his crutch when the pain is too much to handle, and as his life keeps crumbling around him, it has become a never ending cycle.
“The Whale is a complex look at a man’s struggle with demons, both external and internal…”
Ostracized from his family and seemingly living a solitary existence, he manages to have one friend, Liz (Hong Chau) who is doing all she can to keep him alive. But as the film shows in its opening minutes, Charlie does not have long to live, and his blood pressure and weight are bringing him another step closer to dying each day.
With a chance encounter with a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), we are given a glimpse of the struggles he faces daily, with chest pain just a part of his current life. It makes sense that Charlie would use this little time left to reach out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) to try and mend some bridges before it is too late. Comprising only a single week of Charlie’s life, The Whale is a complex look at a man’s struggle with demons, both external and internal, and the hope that can be found even at the darkest of times.
There is a lot going on with The Whale, and it would be easy to dismiss the film as a painful look at overeating, but it is much more than that. This is a story about pain, loss, and the hunt for redemption, spiritual and terrestrial. As much as this is a story about Charlie, everyone around him has their own demons, and their own struggles, that while not as obvious externally, are just as destructive. His lectures where he is an English teacher for the online course act as a window to his hope for the future, and the need to see people be real with the world and themselves.
“Brendan Fraser’s performance is haunting…”
Brendan Fraser’s performance is haunting, with each moment of him on screen giving a new taste of his constant pain. It is a powerful take on the role, giving a raw energy that elevates the movie to something unforgettable. Despite the agony of life, Charlie has a constant sense of hope for the people around him, and even if he has given up on himself, he wants to see the best in people.
This optimism and acceptance of his fate is put in stark contrast against Hong Chau’s take on Liz. In a much more raw and emotional role compared to her take on Elsa in The Menu, Liz is someone who wants the best for those she cares about, and believes she knows what’s right. A nurse and friend to Charlie, she acts as a counterbalance helping The Whale with its complex emotional core.
While there is a lot to dissect in The Whale, potentially enough for a series of essays, I would be doing the film a disservice to not talk about Sadie Sink’s portrayal of Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter Ellie. Coming off the last season of Stranger Things, she captures a manic anger and sense of rebellion that works to push Charlie in ways that are hard to watch. The scenes between Sink and Fraser are some of the most difficult moments in the film, with many of the lines delivered with heartache and pain, as they dive into deep wounds that will never be fully healed.
It is only fitting that the fear of congestive heart failure and heart attacks be the driving force in a movie based on the pain we suffer and cause others, but it works well and gives a finality to the events we see on screen. Darren Aronofsky’s use of body horror and the way Charlie looks and struggles gives the sense there is no happy outcome for these characters, only one that sees closure, with the pain lingering long after the film ends.
“The Whale, while difficult, is one of Darren Aronofsky’s best films to date…”
Aronofsky has never been a director afraid to show the hard parts of human existence; that was true for Requiem for a Dream, and it is very true for The Whale. This is a movie that never lets you feel at ease, and the soundtrack helps build a tension that never seems to go away. It can be exhausting watching Charlie, and painful to see him break down into bingeing food. The soundtrack makes these moments feel almost like a horror movie, and they are some of the most uncomfortable segments of The Whale.
The Whale, while difficult, is one of Darren Aronofsky’s best films to date, and a great way to see Brendan Fraser return to the screen. There is a lot to explore in this movie, but most importantly is the personal struggle that is both heart-wrenching and hopeful for a better future. While not an easy sit, The Whale is a movie deserving of your time and attention, but be prepared to not be okay as the credits roll.