The Whale Review

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Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Brendan Fraser in The Whale. If you told me ten years ago that Fraser would give one of the all-time great performances, I might’ve raised an eyebrow. While Fraser has proven his serious chops in School Ties and Gods and Monsters, The Whale takes him to unprecedented territory. This isn’t merely due to the many pounds of prosthetics Fraser had to wear, although the physically demanding nature of the role should be noted. It’s the emotional depths of Fraser’s performance that make it one for the ages.

Addiction has been at the center of several Darren Aronofsky films. Requiem for a Dream is the most evident example. Even in films like The Wrestler and Black Swan, the protagonist can’t bring themselves to stop what they’re doing, even if it kills them. The Whale follows Fraser’s Charlie, a 600-pound man who can’t stop eating. Charlie’s obesity is rooted in the death of his boyfriend. He’s accepted that death is around the corner for him as well, speeding the process along with meatball subs, drawers full of candy bars, two pizzas delivered nightly, and other snacks littered around his apartment. Before dying, Charlie’s one goal is to reconcile with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink.

Aside from the students he teaches online with his screen blocked, Charlie has only three acquaintances. The underappreciated Hong Chau continues her string of impressive work as Liz, the nurse who looks after Charlie. Although Liz keeps Charlie alive, she also brings him fatty food with every visit. Liz could be seen enabler, but at this point, she knows that Charlie is never going to be healthy. So, he might as well spend his final days enjoying his favorite meals. Ty Simpkins’ Thomas stumbles into Charlie’s life by chance while serving as an LDS missionary. Thomas is convinced that he can save Charlie, although his mission is more about saving himself. There’s also a pizza guy who regularly comes by, but Charlie leaves the money in the mailbox, not wanting to be seen.

Samantha Morton, who gave another effective performance this year in She Said, also deserves a shout-out as Charlie’s ex-wife. There’s no denying that this is Fraser’s showcase, however. Aronofsky had wanted to adapt Samuel D. Hunter’s play for nearly a decade, but he couldn’t find the right actor to play Charlie. Fraser might not have been the first name to come to mind. Once you’ve seen him in the role, though, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Charlie. Fraser will repeatedly break your heart, but he also brings humor, charm, and empathy to the character. Charlie’s life might be drawing to a close, but Fraser’s next act is just starting after several unfortunate setbacks.

Being an adaptation of a play, The Whale could’ve possessed a staged nature. While the film never leaves Charlie’s apartment, the film feels larger in scale than it is. That might be because a trip from the couch to his bedroom is more like a lap around the building. We feel the immense strain that even the simplest actions take on Charlie’s body. Yet, we also feel the love he has for his daughter in this emotional tale of redemption and acceptance. In this case, it’s an acceptance of those with weight struggles and an acceptance of the inevitable.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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