The Whale is a masterpiece of the slow burn; it builds dread, suspense, compassion, and hatred throughout its 117-minute run time. Playing out like some sort of sadistic anti-sitcom, the film does an excellent job of transporting the audience into every scene. Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (who also wrote the stage play of the same name) take this difficult story to tell and do so with honesty and empathy.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a lonely, morbidly obese online English teacher, is dying. Earlier, when he experienced a personal tragedy, he let himself go and stopped caring about his health. But years of binge-eating and isolation have left him on the couch, barely able to move, and utterly dependent on his best friend, Liz (Hong Chau). Charlie hasn’t seen his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), since she was eight, part of the fallout from a messy divorce. Now that his daughter is older and on the verge of graduating high school, he takes a chance and reaches out to Ellie, just to get to know her before he dies.
The film is highlighted by some amazing acting from Fraser and Sink, though the peripheral cast is somewhat lacking. Fraser is so good that he almost makes everyone around him look like they are not up to the task. His acting allows the audience to feel every movement, every struggling breath, and most importantly, the deep soul-crushing pain his character feels. If nothing else, The Whale is worth watching for Fraser’s performance alone.
Aronofsky’s set throughout the film is suffocating, and in the best way possible. Everything is meticulously placed to highlight Charlie’s struggles; just simple movements around his apartment seem agonizing. There is a window that leads up to Charlie’s apartment, the drapes are always closed but one can see the dark silhouettes of people walking by: the pizza delivery guy, a missionary, Ellie, Liz, and more all enter and exit the apartment, while Charlie is all but chained to the couch. The heartbreaking premise of an entire world being right in arm’s reach is almost too much to bear.
The Whale will not appeal to everyone; it is a slow drama that really ramps up as the film moves along, but it will most definitely hook many people right from the get-go. There is a lot of mystery in this movie, and story beats are explained through little tidbits here and there. By the time the end credits roll, viewers have an understanding of the entire cast of characters and may wonder how that even happened. Most of all, this film highlights Fraser’s acting chops, as Aronofsky really gives him the keys to drive the story. This character drama is definitely worth seeing. Just be prepared to ride an emotional roller coaster.