The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter made its stage debut in October 2012. Two years later, Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky sat in for a performance and was inspired to one day bring this particular story to the silver screen, eventually. Fast forward to 2021 when film productions had to adapt to the various restrictions imposed in the wake of a global pandemic, and The Whale was now more viable than ever due to its compact nature. With only one setting and five characters, Darren Aronofsky finally set this adaptation in his sights and wrapped the film’s main shoot in just about one month, having seemingly produced yet another topical piece with ease.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a 600-pound man bound to the constraints of his apartment, a result of his limited mobility. He is frequently visited by his friend Liz (Hong Chau) who doubles as a nurse. Liz is the only vessel for emotion Charlie knows as the pair share a bond of mutual love and trauma. As Charlie’s health rapidly declines, a somewhat familiar face re-enters his life – his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). After 8 years of physical and emotional distance, their relationship is in disarray. Ellie is a rebellious high school senior who begins taking advantage of her impaired father’s loneliness without her mother’s knowledge. Among these complex relationships, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comes into the picture, convinced he has the ability to save Charlie from his suffering.
In many ways, The Whale maintains its theatrical spirit. Due to the constraints of its setting and production design, Aronofsky utilizes the limited space through blocking that evokes the essence of a stage play. Consequently, as a viewer, it’s very easy to feel claustrophobic and fall into Charlie’s disconnected headspace. This only bolsters Aronofsky’s trademark, anxiety-inducing style which can leave you with a tight chest at times. Yet, simultaneously, The Whale often comes across as exploitative in its sensitive themes to manipulate a strong reaction from the audience. Charlie’s obesity is framed as a spectacle, literally through close-up techniques used to display his bodily features in an attempt to fill you with disgust. The end result feels as though the topic of obesity is handled with an offputting lack of compassion in favor of Charlie’s condition becoming a far too on-the-nose analogy to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
All of these concerns ultimately boil down to the source material. The film’s screenplay was adapted by original playwright Samuel D. Hunter, however, there is an indisputable outcome to this fact. Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale translates as a more one-for-one conversion, practIcally verbatim of the play, rather than a more flexible film adaptation with room to expand. While some of the film’s comedic moments land exactly as intended, others feel disturbingly cruel and outdated as a result of this direct adaption of a story about obesity that is now a decade old. Barely anything was done in the writing process, seemingly on purpose, to adjust the material for today’s times which are more complex when it comes to discussing weight, sexuality, and religion. Good or bad, The Whale will not be able to avoid its impending discourse.
The performances are what sincerely shine within The Whale. Brendan Fraser possesses this irresistible power to tug on your heartstrings as he overcomes layers of body prosthetics, which could have easily debilitated his ability to emote. Fraser is well deserving of all the praise headed his way and has delivered yet another standout turnout within his vast career. Charlie is a character who your heart breaks for. Through all of his suffering, he tirelessly attempts to find glimpses of positivity wherever he can. In many ways, Fraser shares his character’s infectiously kind spirit and is able to make his unbreakable soul genuine, even when dealing with emotional turmoil from his daughter. Speaking of Ellie, it is no surprise that Sadie Sink gives the role her all. Sink embodies this stone-cold recluse who inadvertently feels betrayed by the world. The Stranger Things star continues to demonstrate her range in this unique scenario despite her part sometimes being written like your typical angsty teen.
The final confrontation in The Whale has the potential to be a real tear-jerker, until it is abruptly pulled from underneath you. Sadie Sink manages to bring such complexity to her relationship with Fraser’s Charlie just with the delivery of her last lines in a heartwarming, nonetheless tense encounter. The emotional core of the film finally makes its way front and center, but a quick fade to white and roll to credits interrupts this pivotal moment where we are left to contemplate the impact of this story and its all-important conclusion. The closing moments of The Whale are too rushed and frantic, a complete oversight for what has the potential to be a strong and slow-burning finale. It’s the last signifier of a project that, while certainly powerful at points, could have reached further heights if not for some very questionable calls.