As part of our coverage of the 79th Venice International Film Festival, Lex Briscuso reviews Darren Aronofsky’s latest, The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser. Follow along with more coverage in our Venice Film Festival archives.
It has been over four years since Darren Aronofsky released his divisive last feature, mother!, a movie filled with sharp edges and bold paranoia. It was a mammoth of a movie, so huge in scope and concept that it confounded some audience members and delighted others. His next feature is somewhat softer in its approach to questioning human impulses surrounding grief and morality. The Whale is, despite taking place in one room, an even bigger film than mother! in its search for answers. It is all at once a burgeoning comeback for Brendan Fraser, a gut-wrenching interrogation of how we can be consumed by what haunts us, and a crushing yet riveting story of a man just trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel that is what became of his life.
The Whale tells the story of Fraser’s Charlie, a morbidly obese man who is slowly dying from congestive heart failure and never leaves his home. After tragedy befalls one of the people closest to him, he developed a severe eating disorder and has become so unhealthy that he is unable to move or maintain a typical lifestyle without daily help from his closest friend, Liz (Hong Chau). As the film takes us through a week in Charlie’s life, we discover that his encounters with a young missionary (Ty Simpkins), his troubled teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), and his ex-wife (Samantha Morton) will fracture and rebuild his faith in life, love, and goodness.
First things first: The Whale has always been a questionable piece of artistic work. The film is based on a play of the same title by Samuel D. Hunter — who returned to write the screenplay for Aronofsky’s screen version — and the source material exploded onto the theatre scene when I was just about to graduate from acting school in 2014. The criticism that Hunter, being nowhere near obese himself, could get at the heart of the fat experience or the binge eating disorder experience with any semblance of accuracy was valid, and it became a major topic of debate in the theatre scene at that time. Not that everyone has to write only what they know, but it’s a uniquely devastating life to lead, and without knowing the truth of the shame and pain that comes with it, it can be hard to accurately bring that story to life.
That said, I was delighted and stunned to find that this film is deeply true to the binge eating disorder experience. I know this because I myself am a longtime sufferer as well as a plus-sized critic, and in the spirit of something Charlie tells his online essay-writing students during the film, what matters is honesty. It changes everything, even just being honest to yourself, and it was through this lens that I watched the film and was unmistakably affected by it. It will undoubtedly be triggering to those who suffer from BED or similar food issues because it focuses intensely on Charlie’s emotional eating habits and how they manifest as a result of his past coupled with different events he encounters throughout his life.
One such moment comes early in the film when Liz tells Charlie he has congestive heart failure and needs to go to the hospital, which he refuses one of many times throughout the movie. After she leaves his apartment, he starts to Google his condition and his astronomical blood pressure numbers while taking out and putting back several candy bars into a drawer, conflicted on whether or not to eat them. He even takes a bite and then puts them back and takes them out again.
It’s just the beginning of a nearly two-hour journey showcasing exactly the kinds of inner battles BED sufferers face behind closed doors. Toward the end of the film, Charlie goes on an intense pizza binge after an emotional moment, which eventually forces him to vomit up his food. It’s brutal to watch, but it is a reality for so many of us who struggle with our relationship with food and eating.
In a similar fashion, the movie also does a really great job of getting to the heart of why many of us find ourselves stuck in the kind of rut Charlie finds himself in after years of traumatic and emotional upheaval: the shame. There is so much shame in this film, between Charlie’s constant apologies for who he is and what he’s become. He apologizes to almost every character in the film about big and small things, usually in connection with his weight or appearance. He is called disgusting several times in the film, and it’s heartbreaking to watch him internalize this kind of cruel treatment that is so common for fat people who are just trying to live their lives.
Toward the end of the movie, Charlie comes face to face with a kind pizza delivery man who has been making pizza drops at his home for some time. They always talk through the door, and the delivery man seems to be a genuinely good guy — until he decides to stand outside, out of sight, to catch a glimpse of whomever he had been delivering pizzas to but had never seen.
When their meet eyes, Charlie, having not noticed him for several seconds, all the delivery man says is, “Jesus,” before he walks back to his car. I wish I was kidding when I say that kind of unprompted vitriol is all too common for fat people who are simply trying to get by without any kind of unwanted attention. But in spite of all of this, Charlie remains kind and optimistic about those who transgress against him, but he is far from weak.
Doubling down on that concept, the script makes it a point to position Charlie as unafraid and wholly unashamed of being gay. He feels extreme guilt for leaving his wife and daughter to pursue his true love, but one of the most climactic scenes of the film comes when Charlie stands up for his sexuality in the face of religious degradation from Thomas, the young missionary who forms an unlikely bond with Charlie’s daughter and keeps coming by his home to try to impart religious wisdom on him during what appears to be his final days.
It’s very powerful to have him stand up for true love in this scene, despite the fact that he refuses to do it regarding his own body — but that tends to be the experience of many fat people because we are conditioned to feel shame about our physical being. When it comes to other taboos, we can find a way to stand our ground; It’s almost as if we’re only allowed to pick one, and the rest become a target on our backs. Charlie’s decision to challenge Thomas and his religion asserts that society loves to find arbitrary reasons to ostracize and isolate anyone who is different from some norm someone created how-many-ever years ago — and that there’s nothing wrong with many of the things we are quick to demonize.
Considering the complicated mindset that comes with this kind of all-consuming disorder, I was surprised at how much I connected with Fraser’s performance. There were many initial reservations, as I’d ultimately, even after really identifying with his performance, would have liked a real fat actor to be given the opportunity to explore this kind of meaty role — as we know, the industry is intensely fatphobic and rarely affords plus-sized folks anything more than a sidekick character role or another go at Tracy Turnblad — but he came at the part with a lot of tenderness and respect for Charlie and his struggles. Even the prosthetics and makeup that transformed Fraser into a 600-pound man were fairly seamless and realistic.
It’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed throughout the industry as a whole, the idea that we refuse to cast fat actors in anything, let alone films that center their own stories. But if we weren’t going to get a fat actor as Charlie, I’m glad we had Fraser, who tackles the role with such grace and compassion for the character and, by extension, the real people out there who will see themselves in him.