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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: The Whale (2022)

Armed with a wad of tissues and fully preparing myself to sob in front of a room of people and my partner (who claims I have a heart of ice), we sat ourselves down in a theatre ready to be wrecked emotionally by another Aronofsky misery-fest led by arguably the most talked-about performance as of late from Brendan Fraser, who is undergoing a deserved renaissance (Brenaissance if you will) that currently has him as the front runner to take home the Best Actor trophy at this year’s upcoming Academy Awards.

The Whale is adapted from the stage play of the same name by the same author (Samuel D. Hunter) and directed by Darren Aronofsky in what is his first film since the polarizing horror Mother! five years ago. Charlie (Brendan Fraser), is a morbidly obese man who understands his time is running out. So to confront his past mistakes and regrets, he reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), hoping to make things right before he effectively clocks out.

It’d be unfair to label Aronofsky as a peddler of misery as it comes across as an insult rather than a compliment. But I mean, it checks out (Requiem for a Dream, we are looking at you). His films are often traumatic forays into his protagonist’s psyches and their journeys, dragging us across the gravel to the finish line that is often met with spiritual triumphs but physical defeats, despite what his protagonists may think are victories in sacrifice and martyrdom (Black Swan and The Wrestler most notably). So it’s noticeable when audiences and critics have labeled The Whale as an exercise in sympathy, a film that eventually warms the heart because of the messages it conveys despite the harrowing journey in getting there. “People are amazing” is a key line uttered by Charlie in the trailer, ushering us towards his worldview despite the misery he finds his body trapped in.

“Your positivity still pisses me off” (paraphrasing) his ex-wife says. And that’s what Charlie is: positive and to a fault. Although he regrets the manner in which he left his wife and child for his boyfriend years ago, he doesn’t appear to regret following his heart. He wants to reconnect with his daughter, and despite her hatred of the world (and mostly him), Charlie is convinced she is still an incredible person. But this is where The Whale begins to confuse its own messages and intentions in conveying its core message and themes of redemption, regret, honesty and the idea that all people are inherently good despite their circumstances.

Taking place almost entirely inside Charlie’s drab apartment, key visitors come and go:

Liz (Hong Chau), is Charlie’s best friend and nurse who takes care of him. Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a Christian missionary. Dan, the pizza delivery guy. And finally, Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s rebellious daughter with which he hopes to find redemption.

Each one of them has their own stories and reasoning with why they need to be around Charlie, but the most significant is obviously that of Ellie. This is where things keep rounding back to Moby Dick, a key thematic motif in The Whale that has Charlie often reading a mysterious essay about the novel when he is in great physical and emotional distress that somehow calms him down. Apart from the many chapters regarding whale facts, a key theme and driving force for Moby Dick’s protagonist is revenge. Captain Ahab’s obsessive desire to seek vengeance against the whale who took his leg completely envelops his life. In The Whale’s case, the parallels are obvious and effective: Ellie is Captain Ahab and Charlie is the whale. The difference here is that Charlie is the protagonist and Ellie is the antagonist. Understandably, Ellie is not interested in reconnecting with this man who seemingly abandoned her for his boyfriend, but it’s how Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter go about doing this that muddies the waters of The Whale and effectively confuses the intentions and messages it’s attempting to convey.

With any story, it’s essential to lay breadcrumbs that allow themes and plot to circle back and come together – to make sense of what we are being subjected to through motivation and even relatability of its key players. Apart from the loss of his father’s presence at a young age, everything Ellie does throughout is cruel and irrational. And not just to her father, but to everyone. I get it, like Captain Ahab, vengeance and bitterness has supposedly consumed her, but when you pair Charlie’s unwavering belief that Ellie was, is and always will be “an incredible person…the most incredible daughter”, with the fact that she is an unrelatable piece of shit showing zero redeemable qualities, then The Whale starts to lose me as it wades through the muck in the hope of giving us a finale of redemption, acceptance and ultimately, forgiveness.

Now, if we got said breadcrumbs, or at least more substantial chunks, that alluded to Charlie being an awful father or a despicable person, then I could buy more into this blinding hatred Ellie feels for him. But we don’t get any indicators of this past life or current life that suggest he's the piece of shit monster Ellie claims he is. Now, this could understandably be down to miscommunication between parents, etc. but when Ellie goes out of her way to hurt everyone, including Thomas, someone she literally doesn’t know, it’s hard to feel sympathetic to her pain and anger. Throughout the film, Ellie shits on everything everyone says as well as bullying them into corners. She speaks her mind and is brutally honest to an obvious fault. In parts of the film, we see Charlie, who is also an English professor that teaches writing at an online college, keeps going on about truth and honesty – begging writers to tap into this to tell something that is unequivocally who they are. Charlie says the following to his class early on:

“Remember, the point of this course is to learn how to write clearly and persuasively. Think about the truth of your argument.”

Throughout the movie, Charlie constantly seeks truth and honesty, not only from his students, but from himself as well. He’s coming to terms with his mortality and quite frankly, he’s ready to check out. So it’s obviously refreshing for him when his daughter arrives spitting venom. He admires her truth and honesty. But it’s misguided. Ellie is one of those people who say things like “I tell the truth. I’m an asshole I don’t care”. Yes. You are an asshole. Being truthful doesn’t make you an asshole but it’s how you go about proclaiming your supposed truth that makes you an asshole. We all know these people and Ellie is one of them. Now, if Charlie’s conviction of the good that lies inside Ellie was a twist of cruel irony – as written on the page and adapted to screen by Aronofsky’s direction, it would work, for me at least. But it just doesn't work for me because of how straight everyone plays their character and plot beats.

It's maddening how they're actually trying to convince us, unironically, that Ellie is good - deep down inside. We don’t ever get the aforementioned breadcrumbs that suggest Ellie is kind and good and “incredible” in any way. Mostly everyone else in the movie shows instances of kindness that suggest they’re good and kind in some way, even if those moments are misguided (Liz lets Charlie eat what he wants out of love, Thomas genuinely wants to save his soul, etc.). “She’s evil” says Ellie’s mother (Samantha Morton) before Charlie scoffs at the idea. But her actions throughout suggest she is indeed evil, with no actions ever showing me she has that spark of good glowing softly within her.

The film so badly wants us to feel sympathy for its characters, and not just Charlie. Everyone has their own history - fighting their own demons. And although we get some substantial meat to their backstories, the film somehow neglects Charlie’s the most. Their stories connect to Charlie’s overall journey, but unfortunately we never quite get enough of his personal story for us to truly get a sense of his whole, heartbreaking history. It’s often all too vague. The film was always going to attract claims that it is fatphobic. I didn’t get a sense of that, but the film doesn’t do enough to convince people completely that it isn’t just that. We barely hear about his reasons for eating past a few vague sentences centered around his deceased boyfriend. We don’t really delve deeper into the psychology behind his illness and unfortunately we are just subjected to scenes of him eating himself toward an early grave. That’s often as deep as we go. Now, I’m not saying it needs to have a wave of expositional flashbacks, but we just don’t see enough of his past life or past self to truly understand the pain he is going through that’ll not only enrich everyone else’s stories but his and Ellie’s relationship the most - something that would make the final blows of the film sting hardest.

**MAJOR SPOILERS Ellie’s character suddenly arcs out of nowhere, allowing Charlie to finally achieve that sense of redemption and forgiveness. As mentioned before, no breadcrumbs are present to suggest she had earned this. There’s no instance of kindness from her found throughout, and despite Charlie claiming she did what she did to Thomas to help him, I call bullshit on the whole thing. She’s just not a good person and as a friend mentioned, if they had Ellie leave before her arc and Charlie's said redemption was achieved, the ending would have become a piece of tragic irony that would’ve struck harder and possibly improved my opinion on the film as a whole. But they didn’t. Instead, we get this "touching" finale which is completely unearned. Maybe I don’t get it, maybe I do have a heart of ice or maybe I am reading into things too literally, but a character arc like that for Ellie is completely unearned. MAJOR SPOILERS**

The marketing around The Whale has clearly been putting Fraser’s transformation and performance front and center. A comeback performance for the ages. It’s all been “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT HIM ACT! LOOK AT HIM GO!” in all the trailers, crit pics and even the poster (a bland, uncreative image of just him looking left of frame). And despite my grievances for the plot and writing, he is bloody marvelous here. He shows a certain type of sensitivity and humanity that can only be mined from years of heartache. Something he has unfortunately experienced. Hong Chau is reliable as ever as well, providing a handy post for Fraser to hitch his performance around. You can’t make a good film out of a bad script and unfortunately, that’s what I feel is the case here. These performances can only take you so far and unfortunately, in Sadie Sink’s case, she isn’t provided with strong enough material to allow the antagonist in Ellie to be as effective as she is meant to be in making The Whale the special tear-jerker I wanted it to be. Sadie Sink is obviously an immensely talented actor, proving just that in Stranger Things as one of the cast's stand-out performers. But everything about her character and performance is just too obvious, making me question if it’s down to the writing, directing or performance, or perhaps even a combination of all three. But as mentioned before, you can only do so much with such a poorly written-character.

The Whale was disappointing not only because it couldn't convince me that “people are amazing”, but because it's so adamant that how it went about doing it was the right choice. It’s actually baffling to me. It wants to be misery porn but it also wants to be “a little film with a big heart” as Aronofsky claims. It’s not that I don’t feel sorry for Charlie. I do. I rooted for him the entire film. But Ellie. Ellie is the problem with the whole picture. If it were tackled in a manner that highlighted the cruel irony of it all, or hell, if they actually gave her some redeemable and relatable qualities, then I would be whistling a different tune. But hey, maybe I just don’t get it and maybe I do have a heart of ice. But for me, The Whale lacks all the psychological, emotional and thematic depth Aronofsky has been able to muster up in the past.

Where you can watch it: In theatres (Worldwide, 10th of February in South Africa).

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