The Whale Review: Fraser’s incredible comeback is The Whale’s greatest strength
Darren Aronofsky, the director behind Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream, returns with his latest film, The Whale, that sees Brendan Fraser makes a one-of-a-kind comeback performance in a film that isn’t completely the sum of its parts.
The film, based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play of the same name, follows Charlie (Fraser), a reclusive teacher who deals with life-threatening health issues that come from him being incredibly overweight and not maintaining good care of himself. With his days numbered, Charlie attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) and confront his past choices that now put him in a downward spiral. However, it’s not easy and Charlie finds himself in a deeply cathartic and emotional tailspin that forces him to confront hard truths and open old wounds.
Ever since The Whale debuted at this past Venice Film Festival, Fraser’s performance has been the biggest talking point of the film and definitely lives up to the hype. The emotional vulnerability that Fraser brings as Charlie is unlike anything he’s brought to a previous performance. All the compassion and heartache he evokes feels incredibly raw and really rips at your heart in film’s toughest moments. Charlie’s personal journey is truly an emotional rollercoaster that sees him confront damaged parts of himself and past choices that caused ripples in his family. Fraser’s genuine compassion as Charlie makes you connect to everything he says and feels. It’s a performance that has you hooked throughout and makes you look deeper into Charlie past his physical presence.
Like a lot of Aronofsky’s past films, The Whale features some realistic psychological and physical horror that cuts deep and is instantly intriguing. From this looming fear of Charlie’s worsening health condition leading to fatal consequences to him trying to hide himself from the world, including his own students, in fear of people’s reactions to him, it’s hard not to find yourself emotionally engrossed in Charlie’s experience. The film’s more grounded and personal horror fits perfectly into Charlie’s arc and the film’s themes on honesty and compassion with how it touches on real fears and growing inner turmoil. Within Charlie’s toughest health scares and opening past scars though, there’s still strong emotional tethers that touch on genuine human struggle that make a real connection with viewers and have a deep impact.
Aronofsky balances the grounded horror and hope of Charlie’s story well and with Fraser’s incredible performance, it works in making The Whale a cathartic and moving experience. However, outside of Charlie, himself, and Fraser’s performance, the film just leaves little to be desired. While most of the performances are strong in their own regard, especially Sink’s, and act as good supporting pieces to Charlie’s story, Aronofsky struggles to make the other characters as compelling compared to Charlie. With how closed off Ellie is towards Charlie and how genuinely disturbing her behavior can be, it’s tough to really connect with her during any part of the film and Aronofsky never finds a moment to open her character more. Thus, when the film finally sees these two reconcile in the film’s final moments, it just doesn’t have as strong of an impact because there’s little to like about Ellie and you just don’t have that same kind of connection with her.
The same can kind of be said for most other characters since there’s little depth for them or they simply just don’t come off as interesting. For characters like Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and Charlie’s friend and caretaker Liz (Hong Chau), there are good story moments with them that flesh out the story behind the death of Charlie’s former love and even bring in some intriguing turns for their personal arcs. However, they just don’t make a strong enough impression on their own when they’re given the spotlight briefly. Plus, it would’ve been nice to see the film show more of Charlie’s family collapsing when he started a relationship with someone else since most of it is just hearsay and more in-depth flashbacks could’ve elevated the emotions of Charlie facing his ex-wife and given Ellie’s perspective more depth. The film also just feels like it runs out of steam in its final act and tries to tie up loose threads in a rushed manner that makes them not as satisfying. There’s just so much thrown at you in that last act that it’s tough to really absorb and digest everything and it leaves some of the thematic elements feeling a little hollow or farther to grasp than they should.
So, while some of The Whale’s supporting elements fall too much in the shadow of its central standout performance and it can’t exactly utilize its themes perfectly, Fraser’s performance and Charlie’s central arc make it a worthwhile watch and signal an incredible comeback from Fraser that feels long overdue.