Darren Aronofsky makes challenging, thought provoking, films that live in the moment of gasping breath, just after you’ve been punched in the gut.
The Whale (2022) isn’t as viscerally bombastic as Mother! (2017), nor does it have the frenetic chaos of Requiem for a Dream (2000), instead it stares unflinchingly at loss and grief and self-destruction.
Online english teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) grieves the loss of his partner, the love of his life, by eating. He carries the crushing weight of his grief as pounds of flesh, hanging off his body like hundredweight bags of offal, suffocating his organs, straining his heart, and crushing the breath from his lungs.
Charlie is killing himself with calories. He knows it, his only friend Liz (Hong Chau) knows it, but when food is a compulsion, and binging until you vomit is routine, death is all but inevitable.
Before that happens Charlie wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter, the smart but angry Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s sixteen, hasn’t seen her father since he left, and is angry at him for abandoning her. Hurt she tries every way possible to reject him, but Charlie refuses to give up on her.
Sinks performance is powerful. Complimented by Ty Simpkins as the evangelical Thomas, and Chau as Charlie’s friend, nurse, and confessor. Samantha Morton is beautifully brittle as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, hardened by life’s disappointments. But the film belongs to Brendan Fraser. He is unflinching as the positive but self-destroying Charlie. Somehow he finds the funny in the rawness of his grief, there’s something in the eyes, in the soft tone of his voice, remaining vulnerable and strangely optimistic despite his imminent demise.
Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay is demanding, emotionally complicated, often pulling in contradictory directions. Liz cares for Charlie, loves him, but facilitates his eating, and is ultimately assisting his suicide.
Aronofsky has taken Hunter’s screenplay, and the stage play it’s based on, and concentrated the visuals for cinema, wringing them tight until the colours have faded, taken on the pallet of sweat stained furniture.
I thought during the opening minutes, there was a technical problem with the film’s brightness, until I realised Charlie is a shut-in, he never goes out, never opens his curtains. This gloominess is more than just atmosphere, it’s designed to make the light, when it finally floods in, feel ethereal.
Similarly Aronofsky has cropped the film’s aspect ratio, reduced the frame to accentuate mass. When Charlie stands, lumbers to his feet, balancing, unsteady, imminently crashing to the floor, he’s as wide as he is tall, filling the almost square four by three frame.
All of this works to make a uniquely cinematic experience. It’s hard to imagine getting the same punch watching it on a domestic screen. There’s something about the scale in the cinema, projected high, huge, that is brutal.