Director Darren Aronofsky has long expressed his interest in studies of doomed characters. Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler explored manifestations of grief and regret through compulsions and addictions, and how they lead to the destruction of the self.
The Whale fits into an informal trilogy with those two movies. Charlie, brought to life by a deeply committed performance from Brendan Fraser, is grieving the loss of his partner Alan. His utter devastation at the death has triggered compulsive eating disorder and his weight has grown so large that he is mostly confined to his sofa.
Charlie’s binge eating as a mechanism to numb his crippling pain, depicted throughout the movie in bracing moments of self-harm, has caught up with him. His heart, both literally and metaphorically, is broken. Seemingly resigned to his life coming to an end, he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), in a desperate final act of re-connection and redemption.
Aronofsky has adapted the play of Samuel D. Hunter, a writer who was inspired to pen the work after his own battle with obesity, and the polarising director has done little to hide the scaffolding of the source material. It’s a chamber drama with stagey dialogue – and always feels like you’re watching a play.
Aronofsky and Fraser developed the blocking of the scenes ie Charlie’s movements and daily dilemmas, with the American-based Obesity Action Coalition, and they’ve stated their main desire to contribute to the production was to counter Hollywood’s long-held use of obesity as a vehicle for sight-gags – The Nutty Professor, Shallow Hal etc. They wanted to assist in creating a realistic view of this condition.
The OAC’s input is commendable and you sense that The Whale’s intentions are pure – to convey the realities of people with severe obesity. But cinema is inherently a voyeuristic medium and Aronofsky’s movie is not only an invitation into Charlie’s life and pain, but an open invitation to marvel at his size.
As you watch The Whale and Brendan Fraser within the spectacular prosthesis, whether it’s during scenes of masturbation or a full-frontal shower shot, the camera holds on Charlie, wide and medium shots used to capture the breadth of his frame.
The Whale doesn’t have answers for Charlie’s situation – any “solution” for his mental illness would have been a contrivance. But as you watch the movie, and wallow in its unapologetic sentimentality, you may feel its intentions to humanise people with severe obesity as an unintended act of condescension. The screenplay whispers in your ear: “Big people are people too.” Is this one of life’s paradoxes? To insist someone is human is to dehumanise them?
There’s a proverb that says the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and The Whale brings it to mind. The songwriter Jason Isbell sings “no one dies with dignity” and The Whale brings that to mind too.
While there’s an undeniable beauty in Fraser’s Oscar-worthy performance and he locates dignity in Charlie’s various daily indignities, you can’t escape the feeling that his hyper-realistic depiction of morbid obesity does little more than feed your morbid curiosity.
The Whale is in cinemas now.