“The Whale” is a Portrait of All-Consuming Grief (REVIEW)

The Whale is an unforgettably haunting piece. Time has passed since I saw this at the forty-seventh-annual Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s been difficult to put all my thoughts and emotions into words. But one aspect remains true: there’s something universally magnetic about the film’s ability to circle back to the beauty of the human connection we long to capture and keep. 

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, The Whale is an adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter‘s play of the same name. (Hunter also adapted his play for the screen.) Marking Aronofksy’s first feature film since 2017’s Mother!, many were excited for his next project, more with curiosity above anything else. And that general curiosity seemed to grow with Brendan Fraser’s involvement. 

The film has a straightforward premise. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a semi-autobiographical version of Hunter at this difficult time in the playwright’s life. He weighs 600 pounds and lives as a recluse in his own home. He’s ashamed – not because of his appearance, but of the pain he feels and the decisions he made in the past. As Charlie’s health begins deteriorating rapidly, he attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). 

Sadie Sink as Ellie in The Whale (COURTESY: A24)

Hunter drew upon his own experience binge eating to write The Whale, and Aronofsky’s adaptation allows the playwright’s insights to shine. What lies within the film is much more philosophical than its premise might lead you to believe, lending itself oftentimes to pretentious metaphors. Described as a psychological drama, the film feels more like a supernatural drama (figuratively of course). We sift through the remnants of Charlie’s past until we have a full enough picture to understand why Charlie has put himself in this position. He is not at a loss for love – there are people in his life who care about him. For some, this care manifests in selfish ways; for others, care is masked with anger or mixed with desperation. Charlie, though, feels incomplete because he has lost love. He tries to fill this void with food.

The Whale‘s cast shines, each actor getting their own moment to give it their all. This is due to the fact that the film, true to its source material, lives and breathes like a play. The Whale doesn’t rely on pageantry. Aronofsky’s adaptation is clean and precise, and the clear cast standouts are Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau

Without Fraser, there is no film. Without his performance, The Whale would succumb to shallow attempts at exploring connection. And Hong Chau‘s Liz lightens up the melancholic energy that Charlie has for his own life. Their relationship is often dark, shrouded in midnight, as both characters navigate their grief. While Liz tries to trust that there is a sunrise on the horizon, Charlie instead doubles down in believing that it’s time for him to depart this world.

Hong Chau as Liz in The Whale (COURTESY: A24)

There’s been a great deal of apprehension around The Whale due to its subject matter. It’s right that the film has been criticized for its perverse obsession with neglect and its objectification of Charlie. While The Whale doesn’t do this at Charlie’s expense, there are moments in the film where the camera captures his presence in the cruelest manner possible. These moments turn the audience into coin-slinging spectators watching a show of oddities.

Aronofsky makes a point of documenting the abusive behavioral patterns of those surrounding Charlie. This might serve as a representation of how those in Charlie’s life see him, but it’s also a reflection of how Charlie sees himself. Nevertheless, The Whale‘s documentation becomes excessive. It’s overextended and overdrawn, especially in the way Sink’s Ellie goes out of her way to make Charlie feel as small as possible and in effect reducing her own father to insignificance. Maybe this will help her forget that she longs for a father who can be there for her. But Ellie sees Charlie through the lens of cruelty. As she publicly humiliates him as well as those around her, Ellie’s mistreatment of her father reveals her own vicious nature.

But here again, Liz is a candle lighting up the darkest corners of the story. She represents everyone who refuses to give up on the ones they love and care for, even when they have long given up on themselves. I saw a great deal of myself in her, and maybe that’s why I grew so fond of The Whale. The film’s brilliance doesn’t lie in its script or visual signature – it’s in the people. The Whale is a vivid portrait of our inability to escape our own sadness when it becomes all-consuming and of those who are willing to hold our hands through it all.

Rating: 7/10

The Whale made its North American premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2022. The film is set to be released in the United States on December 9, 2022.

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