‘The Whale’- Heartland International Film Festival Review

One of the few Hollywood filmmakers, Darren Aronofsky, is praised and criticized for his psychological dramas. He’s undoubtedly the most ambitious director working, but while he challenges audiences with mesmerizing work from The Wrestler or Black Swan, he can beat you over the head with its messages that don’t land (mother!). You wanna hear a rare hot take from me? I prefer Noah over mother!. You heard me. The Whale has been one of the most talked about films since it was announced last year, and it was even more exciting to hear it was the selected film to close out the Heartland International Film Festival recently. Most of us didn’t know what to expect. It comes out in December, and the only promotion we got is a single still of Brendan Fraser; no trailer has been released from A24. But if for nothing else, this adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play (he also wrote the script) won’t leave your mind the second it ends.

Charlie (Fraser) is a reclusive 600-pound man who teaches an online English class without his students ever seeing his face. He wasn’t always like this, as he became very depressed after the death of his partner Alan, which whom he formed a relationship after leaving his family. Confined to his apartment couch and living through eating, he’s nearing death after his friend/ nurse Liz reads his very high blood pressure, leading to congestive heart failure. To make things right before his inevitable death, he wants to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie in the hope of redemption.

My friend asked me what I thought of it when it was over. I let out a deep breath after sitting through those 117 minutes. And The Whale was a film I really had to sit on to provide an overall consensus. After coming home to collect my thoughts, I was silent, thinking it was good but not great. The following day, it stayed with me more and more that I’m one to think positively about Aronofsky’s best work in a decade. The reactions from various film festivals said the same things, but all that was running through my head was what will he pull off with this adaptation. After the play deeply moved him, he really thought it would be an interesting idea to make this into a film. It opens with that online class, pushing in on a black box hiding Charlie’s face, only hearing his voice. Once he’s revealed, we find him on the couch, masturbating to gay pornography. That was one way to keep me attached to know what was happening.

But what will get everybody talking after it’s over? Mr. Brendan Fraser in a performance that’ll be talked about for ages. How great to see him in a lead role over many years. He was the main reason I maintained any intrigued with this project, and I’m here to join in the conversation, saying this is a role unlike anything he’d done before. This transformative character disappears after the first ten minutes underneath the unrecognizable makeup and prosthetics work from Adrien Morot. Charlie is this kind-hearted, empathetic man who isn’t who he used to be. Everything we need to know about him is all there that’s nearly a reflection on Fraser’s life, a total commitment that had me feeling every emotion as him. It’s easy to see Charlie as this obese middle-aged man with a common coping mechanism of overeating, but he’s also a human being searching for a connection to those around him after making his mistakes. I’ve always liked him, from guilty pleasures of Encino Man and The Mummy to serious work in School Ties or Gods and Monsters (he’s also born in Indianapolis). This is a comeback performance worth the six-minute standing ovation straight out of Venice International Film Festival. 

The entire film is set in Charlie’s apartment, aside from a couple of scenes on the porch. At first, I thought they could use more locations so it wouldn’t hurt the pace until I realized it’s meant to be a sign of claustrophobia of him having nowhere to go, along with the 4:3 aspect ratio to feel crammed in and more effective in nearly every scene through Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. The space is reminiscent of watching a stage play (same with Women Talking) that made it thematically work under Hunter’s screenplay.

The supporting cast didn’t go left unnoticed, especially From Hong Chau. She plays Liz, Charlie’s nurse and best friend, who checks on him over and gives him his comfort food, and she’s someone caring deeply for him while knowing full well he needs to go to the hospital. Ty Simpkins also impressed me as Thomas, a young missionary who thinks Jesus lent him to help Charlie save his soul. His last big moment near the end didn’t hit all the right notes with his storyline, but he’s come a long way from his appearance in Iron Man 3 nine years ago. And the other that’ll be much talked about is Sadie Sink as Charlie’s daughter Ellie.

Honestly, I loved her performance because who doesn’t love Sink with the year she had? Unfortunately, her character was very unlikable throughout the story. It’s understandable for a teenager to have a fractured relationship with their father, leaving out on her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Still, it was difficult to care about her since Charlie was trying his most damn to know her more, wanting her to go to college and help with her essays. Ellie is verbally abusive with no question. All I was thinking was this enough to lower my enjoyment of the film? Almost. Yet, it made me curious about where it’ll take her near the end. She’s great nonetheless. Personally, Chau was my favorite of the supporting cast.

The subject of it centered on an obese man will plenty of different responses that’ll be controversial, and I was nervous about how it’ll go and where it could leave me mad like mother! did. They have Fraser and Aronofsky work together not to make this person the butt of a joke, which has in such poor taste when actors are put in fat suits for the sake of dated humor. This never shames him. A few times there’s humor, but it’s showing us from a perspective that will hit deeply for those. Binge eating is hard to control depending on our feelings, primarily grief. There’s one scene of Charlie consuming everything in his kitchen where I got so comfortable, almost making me not want to eat anything for the rest of the evening. As someone who’s been dealing with self-loathing issues with my weight, it’s hard to tell if this affected me or not.

Sometimes the pacing can be slow since it only moves around other settings outside the apartment, as I mentioned. That issue was made up when it had one of the most memorable endings of the year. Let me tell you; the last ten minutes hit me, as well as the rest of the crowd, largely thanks to the acting and a great score by Rob Simonsen. I guarantee everyone won’t handle its conclusion.

Can I see myself watching it again? That’s still a question in my brain as I’m writing this review. It’s almost in the same vein as Requiem for a Dream where my mood has to be the opposite of happy to put this on. However, since this doesn’t come out until December, the early reactions from the past month have been mostly positive so far and it’s going to be a very divisive film when the public catches this. If we consider The Whale for any serious awards consideration, we are definitely looking at Fraser as the prime front-runner to take home Best Actor. We’re nearing November, but I don’t see anybody stopping him.

Brendan Fraser gives a devastating and powerful performance in The Whale, which is a career-best. It’s another Darren Aronofsky film that’s a lot to process, but it’s an emotional story about life and redemption I’ll remember for a while.

Grade: [B+]

The Whale will be released on December 9, 2022. Runtime: 117 Minutes. Rated R for language, some drug use and sexual content. Studio: A24.

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