Critic After Dark

The Whale
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

(Warning: plot details explicitly discussed)

DARREN ARONOFSKY’s The Whale (2022) adapted Samuel D. Hunter’s play to the big screen and we more or less know how the film has fared: made respectable money from a small ($3 million) budget, won Brendan Fraser an Academy Award for playing a morbidly obese man trying to re-connect with his estranged daughter, provoked either ecstatic or angry reactions from a broad range of critics.

Aronofsky was smart enough to consult with the Obesity Action Coalition, and the statement on their website is interesting: they did not have any input on the decision to cast Fraser, nor did they have any input about the design and appearance of the suit meant to make the actor look like he weighed 600 pounds; they did find Fraser “highly receptive” to their suggestions about how to approach his role, and felt he did “a remarkable job.” They admitted to taking part in the production to “help make sure” the character is portrayed in a “realistic” way, but didn’t explicitly say it was realistic; they hedged a little saying “how individuals experience obesity varies,” but admit “SOME people may have had (the same) experiences.” Tactfully worded, and about the best the production could hope for, considering this may have been a late innings consultation. Stayed clear of a full-throated approval, but no violent objections.

I do like what they have to say about the title: “‘Whale’ is often a derogatory term used for people with obesity. However, after reading the play and seeing the movie… it has a much deeper meaning.” These people take context into consideration, how cool is that?

Oh, what did I think of it? Well let me tell you.

If I were asked for the least appropriate filmmaker to direct a film about an obese man, Aronofsky would be near the top of the list. From Requiem for a Dream to The Wrestler to Black Swan to mother! He’s traded in body horror and sadism, and nearly every time you end up wondering if any of that was worth it. An Aronofsky film about an obese man should be more of the same, and there are passages in the film — Charlie (Fraser) stuffing his face full of greasy fried chicken; Charlie masturbating to porn; Charlie trying to clean himself; Charlie throwing up; Charlie simply trying to lift his carcass up out of a sofa — that rate up there, maybe even worse, because the effects and the context in which they take place are so grimly realistic.

Yes, Aronofsky falls into one trap after another, wasting no opportunity to rub your nose in all of it, but — this time at least — you sense something more, a direction — a point even — to all of Charlie’s masochism.

The rest of the film is like a leisurely striptease, pulling away layer after layer till the full motivation for the overeating is revealed. Not especially profound — a combination of guilt and self-hatred — but the process is compelling, and keeps Aronofsky disciplined. He structures the gross-outs to accumulate to a crescendo, and doesn’t for a moment (till the very last moment) sidestep into fantasy, or at least blatant magic realism.

Helps that Aronofsky (like Hitchcock twice before him) leans into the challenge of adapting the story of a man trapped in a confined space — in this case literally can’t even leave his room. His camera swings around, swoops down, pulls away from Charlie as if to fully take in his size; he treats Charlie by turns like a pratfalling Oliver Hardy, a complex medical case study, and a massive monument to his own impending demise.

Also helps that we can identify with much of the horror. Those slices of cold pizza slapped together and drizzled with mayo or ranch — who hasn’t done that, standing in front of an open fridge late at night? That sandwich of cold cuts dipped into the grape jelly? The candy wrappers, an endless row of them, like ants sneaking up to a picnic? I’ve struggled with my weight all my life, I know what it’s like to stare at an unopened Snickers bar with hours left on the clock. Know what it’s like to catch someone staring at me unawares, the look on their face like a mass of writhing grubs exposed when you upturn a rock.

Maybe Hunter’s best gimmick is a mysterious essay of Moby Dick that Charlie keeps reciting over and over again. Clearly written by a grade schooler, Hunter manages the trick of making this piece of writing sound awkward and silly at first, but with each pass growing in significance in your head. Suddenly you see in the essay literary insight; then philosophical weight; then intense self-confession; finally, a moment of naked empathy —

Along with the essay there’s the character of Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s daughter. At first you wonder what Charlie sees in her (“I just thought that maybe we could spend some time with each other.” “I’m not spending time with you, you’re disgusting.”); on second and third glance she’s even worse — a malevolent sadist on Aronofsky’s level, actively looking through others’ online profiles for a chance to harass, maybe wound. Improbably, Hunter (as interpreted by Sink and helped by Aronofsky) pulls off the stunt of making Ellie’s filterless cruelty seem like a quest for truth and hatred of hypocrisy that actually helps people. You finally see in the way Charlie insists on seeing Ellie what he’s really about: not just an optimist but a desperate romantic whose only arrow in his quiver is optimism. He has to believe Ellie is “an amazing person” because all he has left in this world is his decaying corpulence and his $120,000 in savings — and that he’s keeping for Ellie.

I get it, I really do; The Whale is fake and manipulative and mawkish as hell, and yet Aronofsky and Fraser manage to cut through all the fat with a laser and expose Charlie’s deepest darkest wish — which, coincidentally, is the same wish Jean-Pierre Melville expressed in Godard’s Breathless: to become immortal, then die.

Reading Hunter’s screenplay online one notices Aronofsky made one crucial change: to Hunter’s instruction “fade to black” Aronofsky substitutes a blinding flash of white, and that can mean one of two things: the stereotypical notion of a rapturous ascent (Charlie’s had a heart attack and dropped dead); or, if you’re familiar with Moby Dick you’ll recognize the allusion to the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” which discusses all the implications of the color white — its unnatural purity, its terrible absence of color the meaninglessness of which Charlie’s been fighting against all  his life. Almost despite itself (and maybe it’s just me and not anything the film actually has to offer), one of the best of 2022.