Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale constantly contradicts itself. The unrelenting character study of a 600 pound man trying to reconnect with his daughter holds one of the year’s best performances and is one of its most problematic films. Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name and starring Brendon Fraser in his first big comeback role, the film doesn’t know how to humanize its lead without criticizing and condemning him.
When we first meet Charlie, he is on his couch masturbating to gay porn before succumbing to severe chest pains. He lives alone, with the occasional help from Liz (Hong Chau) who brings him take-out and checks his heartbeat. At 600 pounds, he doesn’t leave his apartment, is confined to the couch, and makes money as an online English professor that never turns on his camera.
He makes it known to himself and the few strangers who visit that he wasn’t always like this, that he made himself severely obese after his partner killed himself due to religious trauma. One afternoon, Ellie, his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) stops by. She’s verbally abusive, calling him fat and disgusting, still angry that he left her and her mother for his partner when she was eight. Knowing he is dying, Charlie propositions Ellie that if she lets him help her pass her English class, he will give her the $100,000 in his bank account.
Fraser is the one light in the middle of this very bleak tunnel. He gives Charlie the humanity the writer and director refuse to give him. Even in his confined and restrictive state, Charlie is more than just his size. A glimmer sparks behind his eye when he talks about literature. Though he clearly made mistakes as a parent, joy, passion, and intelligence come through every time he speaks about and to his daughter. Easily his finest performance, Fraser clearly sees Charlie as a full person deserving of empathy even when others in the story don’t.
Right before the film’s climax, Charlie asks Liz, “Do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring?” Though meant to show his immense empathy and insightfulness, any person in a marginalized body will tell you that people really don’t care. Few are willing to make accommodation for you and all too many are eager to judge. Aronofsky and Hunter are no exception. While they try to make Charlie relatable to a “thin” audience, their own biases verbally and visually make their way on screen.
When Charlie binge eats (or puts anything in his mouth really), Aronofsky turns a switch in his depiction of his main character and portrays him almost like a monster. The music is loud and ominous, though not enough to detract from the sounds of his feeding. Aronofsky literally confines Charlie’s world, by not only keeping us in the same apartment (except for a brief flashback) but by using a boxy 1.33 aspect ratio.
Fraser, who himself is a big man, used both prosthetics and CGI to achieve the stature of a 600 pound person. There are moments where the CGI is painfully noticeable in Charlie’s hands, only adding to Aronofsky’s thesis that Charlie isn’t so much a person but a “thing” with occasional feelings.
Hunter’s script is not exempt from contradictions or bias. He gives Charlie moments of intense relatability only to undo every word by comparing him to animals. Hong Chau is the closest thing Charlie has to a friend as the sister of his deceased partner and Charlie’s caregiver. Even she resolves to the occasional fat joke. Charlie never corrects her nor does Aronofsky give us a chance to even see his reaction. The whole film tries to punch down, victimize, and criminalize fat people at the same time.
Even in The Whale’s emotional climax where Charlie is taking his first unaided steps while Ellie is reading her old Moby Dick essay, Hunter can’t stop himself from comparing Charlie to an animal –not a human being deserving of respect, but an animal. Any humanity and dignity Charlie has is because of Fraser’s performance.
In an interview with Variety, Fraser said, “So often, [obese] people are dismissed in our society, or the object of scorn and derision, and it’s unfair to them. I believe that shaming people for that reason is almost the last domain of prejudice that we overlook, and I think we can do better to change that.” Ironically, Hunter and Aronofsky don’t seem to share that same belief.
This isn’t a new depiction of the fat body. We’ve seen “the drawer full of candy, never eats a vegetable, can’t help themselves” kind of fat (TLC makes a killing off of it with My 600 Pound Life). However, because Fraser is so compelling in The Whale, Aronofsky and Hunter’s outdated and irresponsible depiction disguises itself as redeeming.
The Whale opens on December 9th. A24 has yet to release a trailer.