Credit A24

The Whale Review: Uncomfortable melancholy

By Haris Votsis

An emotional journey into the depths of self-destruction.

Darren Aronofsky has done it again. The master of evoking discomfort and emotional terror has produced yet another film drenched in melancholy and uncomfortable situations. However, in this instance, things are much more toned down. There’s no frantic psychosexual paranoia as in Black Swan, or the manic and hallucinogenic erosion of self as in Pi and Requiem For A Dream. Instead, this film is a much calmer meditation on the fragility caused by emotional attachment and the possibility for boundless love through addiction and self-destruction. A 600-pound homebound English teacher, Charlie – who is looked after by a nurse friend – attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter after he realises that he is dying. The film follows this character’s food addiction and the complications it entails, examining the manners in which the people around him deal with his deteriorating health. 

Some of Aronofsky’s key trademarks are found in the film, including characters overtaken by their flaws or addictions, and scenes of intense emotional outbursts, which allow Aronofsky’s actors to showcase their abilities. In this instance, Brendan Fraser demonstrates his incredible talent, portraying the morbidly obese English tutor with a heart of gold – his greatest performance to date. Even with the added cumbersome fat-suit, Fraser convinces the audience of his authenticity, utilising his body language to bring the character to life and exemplify the physical discomfort he is in. Employing a range of motions, such as painful squirming, walking with great difficulty and regurgitating or coughing in a disturbing manner, Fraser creates a believable portrayal of a 600-pound man. The guttural sounds and grunts he produces are an essential device in shaping the character.

On top of this amazing physical performance, Fraser shines in the emotional scenes – he constructs a deeply layered character capable of extreme sadness, intense frustration and pure love. While the film is about a man nearing the end of his life, it is surprisingly the final emotion, love, which is most often displayed on the screen. Indeed, his performance is widely characterised by the wholesomeness and love he seeks to express towards the people around him. At several moments in the film, I felt compelled to cry, not simply due to the tragic nature of events unfolding in Charlie’s life, but also due to the piercing big blue eyes of Brendan Fraser pouring with sincere unrestrained emotion. It would not surprise me at all if Fraser received an Academy Award for his outstanding performance. 

The film does not have a large cast of characters, as the plot is focused on Charlie’s inability to move around due to obesity, which limits his contact with the outer world. However, the small cast deliver stellar performances, with Sadie Sink portraying the marvellously aggressive and emotionally detached estranged daughter of the protagonist. Hong Chau, as Charlie’s nurse and friend, delivers a more balanced performance, characterised by melancholy, occasional aggression and humour. 

The manner in which Aronofsky directs this film is much more grounded than his previous endeavours. Considering the extremely ambitious scope of films such as The Fountain and the highly stylized fast-paced approach he took in films such as Pi and Requiem for A Dream, the style employed in The Whale is akin to a calm yet foreboding walk along a cloudy beach. The entire film is set within a single apartment, with the exception of some very brief flashbacks, and there are no extremely fast cuts or use of special effects to exaggerate a character’s headspace. Instead, Aronofsky chooses to centre his film in as human a way as possible, and provide a naturalistic approach which allows his characters to play off one another in a recital of melancholy, self-destruction and attachment. 

Finally, the use of sound within the film is highly effective, creating an eerie sense of dread, almost as if Aronofsky had given the audience a stethoscope and pressed it against Charlie’s chest. A variety of sounds such as the character wheezing and coughing are executed meticulously in order to convey a feeling of realism which draws the viewer into Charlie’s struggle to stay alive, at times even becoming repulsive in its relentlessness. Moreover, Rob Simonsen’s calm and ethereal orchestral score emphasises the overall melancholia of the film, while his use of swelling cellos and screeching violins in moments of intense self-destruction or emotional turmoil effectively disrupt the peace and cause a visceral reaction in the audience.

Overall, The Whale makes for an extremely emotional journey into the depths of self-destruction, which will inevitably cause discomfort to many viewers. The film features stellar performances, with Fraser’s being especially touching. Be warned, you will likely end up teary-eyed. But it will be worth it.  

Rating: 4/5 stars


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