‘The Whale’ Review: A Complicated Look at Self-Loathing and Individual Perception
Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie, The Whale, is complicated for a great many reasons. As someone who struggles with my own sense of self and my own relationship to food, I found it incredibly triggering at times—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does play into the divisiveness that is following the film. All of this is to say that it is a hard film to talk about.
Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a man who is suffering from congestive heart failure and refuses to go to a hospital. Having Fraser back and in a role like this, where he is truly giving the performance of his life, is one of the easy reasons to see this movie. Fraser brings an ease to Charlie that drives home the character’s own sense of self-loathing, mixed in with his pain over a strained relationship with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
But it also heavily toes the line of fatphobia, starting with the use of prosthetics to bring Fraser’s Charlie to life—something also utilized in the stage productions of this show. (The Whale was originally a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay.) The use of prosthetics alone has been an ongoing debate about casting thinner actors and putting them in fat suits vs. casting larger-bodied actors to play these roles.
And while the movie itself is a reflection of Charlie and his own self-hatred (where most all characters who have a problem with Charlie do not have a problem with his size or even care), it’s telling that in my screening, the audience’s reaction to Charlie just moving around, at times, was to laugh. And yes, there are characters who are shocked by Charlie’s size, but it comes from knowing him when he was smaller. (Although The Whale makes a pretty good move, in my opinion, of making it clear that Charlie was never a stick-thin man.)
Within the movie, we get to see pictures of Charlie throughout his adult life, and he often talks about his weight in relation to what we currently see him as. In that, it is made clear that Charlie has never been a small man, but his current state is tied to his own mental health and decision to destroy his health in a similar way that Alan (his former partner) did.
The movie itself is uncomfortable. You’re watching a man who does not care about himself, his health, and anything about his own well-being let himself die because he doesn’t feel worthy. That alone is uncomfortable, but marry that with the fact that everyone in Charlie’s life is yelling at him for one reason or another, and you’re left with a lot of uneasy feelings that are hard to wrap your head around. It’s a movie that explores how mental health can be tied to one’s relationship to food, and that comes with some pushback, naturally, but it is a movie that has some important themes to explore.
The performances in The Whale are out of this world
The Whale might continue to divide audiences, with some being able to walk out of the movie and instantly move on with their lives, and others, like myself, stuck in a cycle of wondering whether or not we enjoyed watching thoughts similar to our own depicted onscreen. It’s tough to watch, and it is tough to navigate whether or not this movie is doing harm to the fat community in its depiction of Charlie. But what I think everyone can agree on is that the performances are a masterpiece.
Fraser has been slowly returning to the star power most of us millennials knew him to have. If you grew up in the ’90s, you probably have your own favorite Fraser movie that is also a comfort choice. (Mine are Bedazzled and Blast From the Past.) But The Whale is something else entirely. In just one look, he captures Charlie’s pain and desire to just find some kind of closure in his life and some kind of hope that he did something right, and it carries you through the movie. It is the kind of rare performance where I instantly knew that he should have the Oscar win.
And Fraser’s performance is paired incredibly with Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse, best friend, his rock, and his one hope throughout the story. Liz is trying and begging for Charlie to go to the hospital, and he refuses. He continues to act as if he cannot afford it and, as the movie goes on, we know that’s not the case—but Liz is still trying. She does enable him and keeps trying to take care of him despite the connection she has to Charlie and the pain this is causing her, and when she finally breaks, Chau really shines. I do hope she gets recognition for it.
Is the uncomfortable aspect worth it?
I keep going back and forth on this movie because it is fantastic in regards to the performances. Seeing it, though, does leave you with a question of whether or not it was worth it. The Whale weighed on me from the moment I left the theater, and I wonder if I will be free of these thoughts soon because it is prodding at my own relationship to food in a negative way.
But the most uncomfortable aspect for me was watching the audience I was surrounded by laugh at Charlie’s size, thinking that his struggle and his journey were something put there for their amusement. It made me question how they’d view a body like Charlie’s in real life. It made me want to sink into my seat and hide because they thought it was worth it to laugh at someone who had a different life experience from their own.
The movie is tied to a person’s sense of self-worth, and while it is Charlie’s specific journey, it can have a negative effect on those who view fatness as tied to someone’s “laziness,” which is not the case. My feelings are complicated simply because this is one man’s journey and one man’s relationship to food, and not a commentary on the fat community as a whole. The Whale is a movie that will stay with you, and I hope it does start a positive conversation about weight and how we view it.
All of which is to say that my feelings are complicated. I went in to see the brilliant performances of Fraser, Sink, Chau, Ty Simpkins, and the entire cast, and I left thinking of their performances and trying to wrap my head around the messages within the movie as well as how the audience took it in. The Whale won’t be for everyone, but it should, at the end of the day, get Brendan Fraser the award recognition he rightfully deserves.
(featured image: A24)
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