the whale

Review: ‘The Whale’ Is A Superbly-Acted Lesson In Empathy And Redemption

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THE WHALE (2022)

The outstanding Brendan Fraser leads a phenomenal cast, the best ensemble of the year, in a divisive film from Darren Aronofsky whose title, The Whale, has a number of meanings, not the least of which is the emotional bombardment from the very first frame.

A man with severe obesity named Charlie (Fraser) spends much of his time as a recluse, teaching online English from his apartment with limited physical contact to the outside world, yet yearns for one more opportunity to connect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink). This cast is, without a doubt, a step above every other seen this year. Fraser achieves another level in his storied career (and should win the Oscar in a tight race with Austin Butler for Elvis), while Sink establishes herself as a young force in the industry with a bright future ahead. Add in Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, and the phenomenal Hong Chau, each on top of their game, and you have a feast of talent on screen at every moment. Chau is particularly incredible, her presence felt in each of her scenes and the emotional weight of her character consistently felt. There is not a weak thread in the cast.

There is an unmistakable sense of dread continually doused on viewers as The Whale powers forward, the walls of Charlie’s apartment seemingly closing in as his relationships crumble alongside his diminished health. Aronofsky’s attention to the presence and positioning of not only the camera, but the characters, aids the actors in establishing an increasingly uncomfortable tone as Samuel D. Hunter’s expertly-adapted screenplay (from his own script for the stage) delivers wallop after wallop. There is much at play here, from commentary on obesity to the presence and impact of religion, even the clash between true identity and established family structure, each, in my opinion, delicately handled and exploited only for the sake of the drama being told. Many have criticized Aronofsky for casting Fraser as a homosexual obese man when he is neither of those things, but the character and the story are more dynamic than that simple characterization. It’s true that the depiction of Charlie and his struggles with obesity are a predominant focus, and it’s not a positive one, but in the confines of the story, it makes sense. We find each of the characters in a different state of trauma at the beginning of the film, each having dealt with it in their own ways. The next two hours is spent seeing how they each wrestle with it, Charlie being the one who never waivers in his faith that human beings are inherently good, and this would include him, on essentially his road to personal redemption. It’s a story that humanizes the characters through the plot developments and challenges viewers along the way.

The Whale is remarkable, one for being an incredibly well-translated stage-to-screen adaptation, and two for showcasing a lead character who goes against the norm of typical cinema. Charlie isn’t on the receiving end of jokes, nor is he only an obese man with nothing else to offer. The Whale presents an avenue by which to experience this story through unfamiliar eyes while challenging our empathy and preconceived notions as more is unpacked, ultimately leaves viewers with heavy hearts and lots to ponder. This is one hell of an emotional powder keg.

The Whale hits theaters on December 9th, 2022.

Rating: 5/5

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