Polygon has a team on-site at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, covering the horror, comedy, drama and action films intended to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into award season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.
A24s The whale drop all of Darren Aronofsky’s worst tendencies in a thick suit. It’s an exercise in humiliation in Aronofsky’s torturous mode Requiem for a dreambut it’s aimed at an even more vulnerable target than Requiemaddicts. It’s also full of the biblical dicks of Mother, Noahand The fountainbut centered around a Christ figure whose masochistic superpower is to absorb the cruelty of everyone around him and store them safely in his massive frame.
To be honest, some people enjoy this kind of misery. But these viewers are also being warned that not only is this movie hard to bear and likely to be actively harmful to some viewers, it’s also a selfish reinforcement of the status quo – which is one of the dullest things a movie can be.
For a film that, in the most generous reading possible, encourages viewers to consider that there might be a painful backstory behind bodies they consider “disgusting” (the word of the movie), The whale seems to have little interest in the point of view of the main character, Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie is a middle-aged divorcee who lives in a small apartment somewhere in Idaho, where he teaches English composition online. Charlie never turns on his camera during lectures, because he is fat – very fat, about 600 pounds. Charlie struggles to get by without a walker and he has adaptive devices such as grab bars hidden in his house.
If an alien landed on Earth and wondered whether the human species found its largest members attractive or repulsive, The whale would communicate the answer clearly. Aronofsky turns up the foley audio when Charlie is eating to emphasize the wet sound of lips chattering. He plays ominous music under these sequences so we know he’s doing something very bad indeed. Fraser’s neck and upper lip are constantly covered in sweat, and his T-shirt is dirty and covered in crumbs. At one point, he takes off his shirt and slowly makes his way to his bed, dangling limp rolls of prosthetic fat from his body as he shuffles toward the camera like the shaggy beast that he is. Just in case viewers still don’t understand that they would find him disgusting, he’s reciting an essay: Moby Dick and how a whale is “a poor big animal” with no feelings.
And that’s exactly what Aronofsky communicates about him through the direction of the film. The story in The whaleThe first half is a gauntlet of humiliation, starting with an evangelical missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) walking into Charlie having a heart attack while gay porn is still playing on his laptop over a pathetic attempt at masturbation. Charlie’s nurse and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), is usually nice to him, although she allows him with buckets of fried chicken and meatball subs. Thomas too, though he’s less interested in Charlie as a person than as a soul to save. But Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) openly despises him and says the meanest things she can think of to punish Charlie for leaving her and her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), when Ellie was 8.
Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (who is adapting his own play) don’t reveal the condescending point of all this until the second half of the film: Charlie is a saint, a Christ figure, the fat man who loved the world so much, he let people in his life treat him like complete dog shit to rid them of their hatred, and him from his sins. Meanwhile, a subplot about Thomas’s past life in Iowa makes the bizarre claim that people actually try to help when they treat others unkindly, which can only be true if the target of that animosity doesn’t know what’s right for them. So what is it? Does one have to turn the other cheek, or be cruel to be nice? Depends if they are fat or not, it seems. Charlie never comments on other characters’ smoking and drinking, but they do comment on his weight.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about The whale is how close it comes to some sort of insight. Aronofsky and Hunter just needed to show some empathy and curiosity about Charlie’s size, rather than fatherly guessing at their motivations. The main culprit here is a plot where Charlie refuses to go to the hospital even though his blood pressure is dangerously high and he shows symptoms of congestive heart failure. At first, he lies to Liz and says he doesn’t have the money to pay the huge medical bills he would earn as an uninsured patient. It turns out that Charlie has put away more than $100,000 in savings.
The whale understands this as a combination of selflessness—he hopes to give that money to Ellie after he dies—and suicidality. What does Aronofsky and Hunter’s projection reveal about Charlie’s motivations: extensive studies have shown why obese patients avoid medical treatment, and it has nothing to do with self-sacrificing messiah complex bullshit. Doctors are just cruel to fat people – and they are disproportionately likely to fire, humiliate and misdiagnose them.
The other frustrating thing is that Brendan Fraser is actually a major asset in the title role. He plays Charlie as a smart, funny, thoughtful man who loves language and creativity, and refuses to let the tragic circumstances of his life turn him into a cynic. He sees the best in everyone, even Ellie, whose insults he rebuts with affirmations and support. (She’s in pain, you see.) Fraser’s eyes are kind, and his eyebrows are furrowed with sadness and concern.
But if there’s any anger behind those eyes, we don’t see it. If Charlie just tells people what they want to hear in hopes of minimizing their abuse, that doesn’t translate. The film seems content with its superficial protestations that he is okay and happy and just a naturally positive man, again betraying his lack of interest in Charlie’s inner emotional life – Fraser’s sensitive attempt to find a man within the symbol notwithstanding .
Aronofsky and his team are more interested in their own cleverness. Some of the barbs thrown around Charlie’s apartment are actually quite funny. (The film openly shows its theatrical roots: the entire story takes place within the confines of Charlie’s apartment and porch.) Chau, in particular, brings a spiky warmth to her role as Liz, the type of girlfriend whose love language is playful insults, and whose purpose in life is like a fierce defender. Liz, of course, is in pain too; everyone is here. But while everyone is hurting, Charlie must suffer the most.
If you look at The whale as a fable, the moral is that it is the responsibility of the abused to love and forgive their abusers. The movie thinks he’s saying, “You don’t understand, he’s fat because he’s suffering.” But it ends by saying “You don’t understand, we have to be cruel to fat people because” we Suffering.” But beyond the biblical metaphor of Aronofsky and Hunter, fat people did not volunteer themselves as repositories for society’s anger and contempt. No one agrees to be bullied so that the bully can feel better about themselves—that is a selfish lie that bullies tell themselves.This is an externally imposed martyrdom, which negates the point of the exercise.
In The whale, Aronofsky posits his sadism as an intellectual experiment, challenging viewers to find humanity buried beneath Charlie’s thick layers of fat. That’s not as benevolent a premise as he seems to think. It starts from the premise that a 600-pound man is inherently unattractive. It’s like walking up to a stranger on the street and saying, “You’re an abomination, but I love you anyway,” in keeping with the strong tension of the smug Christianity the film purports to criticize. Audiences can walk away proud of themselves for having shed a few tears for this disgusting whale, while gaining no new insight into what it is really like to be that whale. That’s not empathy. That’s a shame, buried under a thick, suffocating layer of contempt.
The whale will hit theaters on December 9.