If you’re like me and like to keep tabs on all the hot new movies coming out, you’ve probably heard of The Whale. It stars Brendan Fraser, and his performance in the film has been garnering a lot of awards buzz.
The Whale tells the story of a reclusive English teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
It’s the latest work from director Darren Aronofsky — best known for his acclaimed films The Wrestler and Black Swan, as well as earlier festival darlings pi and Requiem for a Dream — and based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter (who also wrote the script).
BTW, if you don’t wanna know anymore, skip to the end for the TL;DR. Otherwise, let’s get into it!
OK. So, here’s the setup…
Inspired by Hunter’s own personal experiences and struggles, The Whale follows the story of Charlie (Fraser), a 600-pound man struggling with depression who’s homebound and living in near isolation in rural Idaho.
Charlie spends most of his days working (he teaches online essay-writing classes), watching TV, reading, or just getting sad while reflecting on the past. Relatable, right?
The only person who remains close to Charlie is his longtime best friend and now caretaker, Liz (played magnificently by Hong Chau), who comes by regularly to check on Charlie’s vitals and bring him food, medical supplies, or other sundries.
Although their relationship is truly loving, Liz can also be sharp and scolding at times. After all, she’s a woman with a haunted and traumatic past that bonds her to Charlie, and she’s deathly afraid of reliving that trauma. The problem is, Charlie is also suffering from congenital heart failure and refuses to go to the hospital. So, his days are numbered.
One day, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) happens to knock on Charlie’s door. After moving past their VERY awkward first meeting, Thomas decides to make it his mission to “save” Charlie’s soul. See, Thomas is from a cult-like group called New Life, which Charlie is unfortunately all too familiar with. But being the kind and open-hearted person that he is, Charlie welcomes Thomas into his life (much to Liz’s dismay).
Although he’s willing to chat with Thomas, Charlie actually has no interest in being “saved” — he’s read the Bible (twice) and finds it to be quite unfair — in fact, he chooses not to be “saved” (soul or otherwise) by anyone.
Charlie’s main focus for his remaining time is to make sure his daughter, Ellie, will be okay. The problem is that Ellie (Sadie Sink) and Charlie are estranged. And, oof, when you meet her, you’ll understand why.
At first, Ellie comes off as your typical angry teen. But as the story progresses, we realize the intensity of her anger goes so deep it’s turned her into someone truly and deeply unhappy. She’s WAY too comfortable hurling incredibly nasty words at everyone, especially Charlie, who is nothing but nice to her. Even her own mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), calls her a “terror.”
Although Mary believes her own daughter is evil, Charlie — ever the optimist — doesn’t see it that way. He has incredible hope for her. So, he reaches out to Ellie, whom he hasn’t seen in nine years, and attempts to help her with her homework. Specifically with (what else?!) her essay writing.
You see, one of the most beloved things Charlie keeps is an essay Ellie wrote about Moby-Dick; or, The Whale when she was a young girl. And there’s a line from her essay Charlie will repeat, particularly in moments of duress, to bring himself comfort. Part of it reads: “The author is just trying to save us from his own sad story.” Ellie’s very astute response to Herman Melville’s “boring” chapters about whales is, as you’ll learn, what keeps Charlie hopeful.
In fact, as the layers of the story are peeled back, we realize Ellie’s essay is the true lynchpin. And the payoff at the end will likely bring you to tears.
Now, because the film is based on a play (and also because they filmed during COVID), you should know that The Whale feels very contained. The entirety of the film takes place in (or just outside of) Charlie’s apartment. It’s also presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which you obviously don’t see much these days, but this choice certainly adds to the confined situation Charlie is in.
But the highlight of the film really is Fraser’s performance. Aside from the rigorous four hours of prosthetic makeup application that Fraser went through every morning (a fact, you may have heard, that has stirred some controversy and which Fraser himself has addressed several times), it is clear that Fraser has taken on one of the most challenging roles of his career.
It’s been a hot minute since Fraser has acted in a major dramatic role, and it’s so wonderful to see him returning to this kind of part. And what he brings to Charlie is a sense of vulnerability, earnestness, and honesty that will make you feel so much. People’s personal casting preferences aside, Fraser no doubt knocked this one out of the park and will 1,000% be a frontrunner during awards season.
An additional shoutout needs to be given to Chau for her equally magnificent portrayal of Liz. Like the flip of a switch, she can go from affectionate to berating in a split second, and it’s just so impressive to watch. The chemistry Chau and Fraser have on screen feels so natural, you’d think these two have been BFFs for years.
Overalls, The Whale is certainly Aronofsky’s most pared-down film in a while (maybe ever), and it feels much more akin to The Wrestler now Black Swan in terms of following a lone, self-destructive hero. And, frankly, it’s a great relief to see Aronofsky headed back in this direction (I was not a fan of Mother! now Noah). Hopefully, he keeps up with it.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the film loses steam somewhere in the middle and at times can feel monotonous, watching scene after scene of two talking heads (as is so often the case with films based on plays). Despite these minor flaws, though, you’ll be glad you stuck it out until the end when all is said and done — 8/10, would recommend!
The Whale opens in Los Angeles and New York today, Dec. 9, and nationwide on Dec. 21, and you can watch the trailer here: