This review of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is the first of The House Reviews, featuring films you can check out at Charlotte’s only art house cinema. The Whale will run through Jan. 19 at the Independent Picture House, located at 4237 Raleigh St.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale might be a small film in regard to budget and location, but the enormity of Brendan Fraser’s performance as a man unable to escape his past is the only thing we should be fixated on.
Yes, this film happens to revolve around a central character that weighs approximately 600 pounds, but that’s not really the point; it’s not the reason to rush out to see the film and it shouldn’t be the takeaway once one has. Instead, the overarching theme here is that there are some people in this world who, for one reason or another, start down a dark, unfortunate path — either by mistake or misfortune — and simply wander too far. They let things get out of control. They may get stuck in a dark world of depression and regret and simply can’t find their way out.
This describes the main character in The Whale, a film reminiscent of Aronofsky’s 2008 release The Wrestler, or, for that matter, any number of other spiraling Aronofsky characters in movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000) or Black Swan (2010).
The Whale opens as Charlie (Brendan Fraser) conducts an online Zoom class from his reclusive apartment. The students’ square-shaped video feeds surround his own screen in the center where the instructor’s image should be, but apparently Charlie is a video-off kind of guy, as only his voice is heard lecturing to the attentive pupils. Everything looks rather normal, but the underlying ominous score piece adds a sense of foreboding.
But we’ll have to figure that out on the other side of the title card.
Fortunately for us viewers, the movie does not all take place during a Zoom class, though it is entirely set in Charlie’s apartment. This is typical of films adapted from stage plays, as The Whale was adapted from the screenwriter’s (Samuel D. Hunter) stage play of the same name. Aronofsky paints a picture of this man’s life so bleak and pathetic that it was often difficult to watch — and some might say over the top.
The film hits hard right off the bat, as Charlie nearly dies of a porn-induced heart attack in the first five minutes. Fortunately, a young missionary (no pun intended) named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) miraculously comes knocking at the door and saves Charlie in a more literal sense than he had intended. Thomas saves Charlie by reciting an essay that is close to the latter’s heart both literally and figuratively; Charlie finds it important enough to hand it to the young man mid-cardiac arrest, ultimately calming said heart.
The essay, whose writer is unknown until the end of the movie, discusses the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. Its most outstanding passage mentions how Melville gives so much description of the whale, theorizing that “The author is just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.”
This appears to be exactly what Charlie has been doing for quite some time, putting on a facade of positivity and constantly being kind to the people that treat him so badly, which is just about everyone he comes in contact with. This includes his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), with whom he is trying desperately to make amends.
The only character that treats Charlie with any amount of genuine respect and kindness is his personal caretaker, Liz, played remarkably by actress Hong Chau. Liz shows Charlie tough love, which can look brutal at times, but she’s honest, and that’s what he loves about her. Liz hates seeing the rapid decline of her patient, feeling helpless in her care for him. He is stubborn and set in his ways, refusing to go to the hospital when she insists. As we will learn, Liz has been down this road before with someone very close to both her and Charlie.
Atmospherically, The Whale is dreary. It constantly rains throughout the film and the few times the camera makes its way outside the apartment and it isn’t pouring it remains gray and overcast. The only things that brighten up the film in any way are the little bits of humor sprinkled in from time to time. However, it is mostly a character study.
The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, an effect used in filmmaking that forces a hyper-focus on the characters, specifically a character like Charlie. Within this perspective there’s not much else to see except the person that fills the space. The ratio locks the viewer in and keeps them there — an effective tactic. It forces them to feel everything they see and hear from the actor on screen — from Charlie’s voice to the way his eyes constantly stare off in a blank and hopeless expression.
Even the way Charlie struggles to move in almost every scene seems completely natural, as are the ways he desperately and unsuccessfully seeks honesty from everyone while attempting to make things right with his daughter — or in Charlie’s words, “Do at least one thing right in my life.”
It’s a truly defining performance from an actor who has spoken openly of his real-life struggles and, with The Whale, got the chance to leave it all on the screen.