The Whale opens with a morbidly obese man having heart trouble while masturbating to gay porn. He is then walked in on by a door-to-door evangelist preaching his love of Jesus. It sounds like something from a problematic 90s gross out comedy, but this is the depressing horror Charlie (Brendan Fraser) faces daily.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Whale follows what very well may be the last week of Charlie’s life. A reclusive 600-pound shut-in, Charlie teaches English online with his webcam disabled while eating himself to death. His only friend is Liz (Hong Chau) who treats him as a nurse, while at the same time enabling his dangerous lifestyle. Knowing he is running out of time; Charlie wishes to reconnect with his troubled daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Over the next few days, he will not only be forced to face his own nature but also help others understand theirs.
Written for the screen by Samuel D. Hunter and based on his 2012 play of the same name, The Whale is an incredibly moving film. Its story is set entirely within the confines of Charlie‘s apartment and like the man himself, we never venture outside. Dealing with loss, redemption, and self-loathing, it tugs at our heartstrings in the most effective of ways. Charlie is damaged human being who is negative about himself but endlessly positive about others and honest writing.
On a visual level, the film is shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio with Charlie’s enormous size filling the frame. Charlie‘s world is small and so that is how we see it. Although Hunter’s play opened in 2012, its setting is uncomfortably reminiscent of the recent time we ourselves spent as lockdown shut ins.
Connections to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler have been made with that film being a renaissance for Mickey Rourke’s career. It’s easy to see why as Brendan Fraser is perfect in this role and a likely a front runner for any Best Actor awards you could name. He isn’t unrecognisable under the make-up, rather he shines through it with the charisma we all know and love. However not with some handsome or funny persona but a deeply moving one.
Fraser doesn’t just look like a 600-pound man, he holds himself and breathes like one too. His whole existence is a sad one and we can see how painful it is for him. Never have I been brought to tears just by looking at an actor sit there, but I was while watching this. And it wasn’t because of the make-up, it was because of Fraser – he is just that fucking brilliant in this film.
Fraser is matched by a small but talented cast of supporting actors. Among them Hong Chau, an actress who recently wowed me in The Menu. Her character Liz grows deeper with every passing day she visits. As does Charlie‘s daughter Ellie who is a troubled teen that acts out of cruelty at times, yet Sadie Sink manages to make her character still likeable. This is something I love about the film, none of its characters are simply good or bad, there is an honesty to them in their faults.
First and foremost, this is an actors movie with the performances being the highlight. That said, the special effects make-up is deserving of its own hype. The prosthetic effects Fraser is wearing is some of the best work I’ve ever seen. Incredibly realistic, I can only imagine how difficult a task it was to create for all involved.
We’ve seen fat suits in other films, but I find they often cut corners where possible. Covering actors in long sleeves or high collars to hide padding. Also using tricks like wristwatches to conceal joints and make application faster. The Whale NEVER features anything like this so along with Fraser’s acting Charlie appears and feels 100% convincing.
The Whale is a character driven film which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Its actors all deliver in their roles as realistically flawed human beings. We may feel frustration with Charlie, but he isn’t asking for pity. He just wants to do what is right. This makes his story all the more emotionally devastating to witness. With superb direction from Darren Aronofsky, Brendan Fraser delivers possibly the greatest performance of his career.