Year:  2022

Director:  Darren Aronofsky

Rated:  M

Release:  February 2, 2023

Distributor: Madman

Running time: 117 minutes

Worth: $18.50
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins

… a tender and frequently overwhelming character drama, albeit carrying Aronofsky’s love-it-or-hate-it penchant for directness and preoccupation with metaphysics.

The fiercely divisive psycho-spiritualist Darren Aronofsky is back with another film that is sure to cause profound weeping and gnashing of teeth in equal measure. This time, he’s shifting away from the Biblical bombast of Noah and mother! and returning to the more grounded character work of The Wrestler and to an extent Requiem for a Dream, although the end result is no less fixated on the weight of trying to attain something greater than one’s self.

Morbidly obese English professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is the latest in Aronofsky’s tradition of self-destructive leads, secluded in his home while gorging himself on food to fill the hole left by the death of his partner. With a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s cramped framing effectively shows Charlie’s isolated existence. Whenever the camera’s gaze threatens to turn his personage into sheer grief spectacle (a point of contention for some across much of Aronofsky’s work), Fraser’s heartfelt and achingly emotional performance grounds it humane and empathetic.

Through his interactions with the supporting cast; Sadie Sink as his John ‘Breakfast Club’ Bender-esque daughter Ellie, Hong Chau as his nurse and best friend Liz, and especially Ty Simpkins as a missionary for the New Life church, the effects of shame and excommunication wind and whirl around every relationship shown. Of all Aronofsky works to date, this is the one that is most connected to organised religion, as opposed to belief systems in the abstract, and he has some choice words for such structures.

While Samuel D. Hunter’s dialogue occasionally toes the line between tough love and plain cruelty (Ellie in particular tap-dances on that line), it’s ultimately committed to pointing the finger at systems of guilt and how they can drive people to implode. Shame won’t magically make anyone thinner or straighter, no matter how self-righteous the intent; it’ll just make things worse.

From that springboard of gay solidarity and acknowledgement of the root cause of fatphobia, the film’s message of wholehearted honesty and compassion makes for strangely optimistic viewing. In Charlie’s quest to find his road to awe, his seeking of simple pleasures that are slowly killing him gradually gives way to a steadfast plea to look past the abrasive and refined surface and connect with the flawed and vulnerable humanity within not just Charlie, but all of us.

The Whale is a tender and frequently overwhelming character drama, albeit carrying Aronofsky’s love-it-or-hate-it penchant for directness and preoccupation with metaphysics. Its pleas for forgiveness of self and of others show more than enough understanding of the necessary earned obstacles, and its performances are so strong as to smooth over any potential sticking points that exist in the screenplay. Even for viewers who are wary of Aronofsky’s blunt-force musings, Brendan Fraser giving a career-best performance still makes it worth a high recommendation.