Works Of The Flesh
When my brother was drinking himself to death, he was alone. He didn’t die in the shabby Tulsa house he rented. That came a few days later in the hospital as his organs shut down, one by one. But I suspect there was a moment earlier on, it could have been months or years, where he saw two paths for his life. The first involved asking for help, treatment, backsliding numerous times, and the possibility of something approximating a fresh start. The second path involved cheap vodka, dim rooms with beige walls, and a tragic death.
That’s one of the troublesome aspects of addiction, the idea that it’s ultimately about good and bad decisions. It used to be that alcoholics and drug addicts were viewed as weak, as people of low character. While a degree of that perspective lingers, I think (I hope?) that we’re coming around to a more enlightened understanding. At its core, addiction is a disease, and it should be treated as such by medical professionals and loved ones alike.
Of course, that’s an easy perspective to have until an addicted person crashes into your life. They might destroy your marriage. They could demolish parental bonds. They might kill themselves. It all ends the same way, with the wreckage of a life and the recurring thought of, “Why would they do that? Why didn’t they think about me?” Preaching compassion is simple until you’re called upon to be compassionate and excuse what can look inexcusable.
In our life and our art, there’s a persistent theme of the addict’s redemption. In this trope, the addict realizes the damage they have done and attempts to make amends.* While art can simplify the messy realities of life, it doesn’t always. Darren Aronofsky has been comfortable with this dichotomy for quite some time, and his newest film The Whale bears that out.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is dying. As a six-hundred pound man, he can’t be accurately called obese or fat. The human body simply isn’t designed to take those stressors for an extended period of time, and he’s likely passed the point of no return. We meet Charlie on Monday, and the odds are excellent that there won’t be a next Monday for him.
Charlie has a nimble mind which has been put to good use as a college English professor. As he teaches his students about the fundamentals of essay writing over Zoom, we see a black square with his name under it. He’s turned his laptop camera off, and off it will stay, since he’s severely restricted his level of human interaction.
Though there are a few people who deal with Charlie on a regular basis. The first is Dan (Sathya Sridharan), a friendly pizza guy who’s curious about his reclusive customer. The second is Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and longtime friend to Charlie. She begs him to take better care of himself and see a doctor. She also enables him and delivers meatball subs alongside her medical advice.
Charlie knows his time is short, and he also knows he needs to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). It’s been eight years since he’s seen her. She’s upset about that, rightfully so, and she’s determined to have her pound of flesh. Their conflict will be interrupted by a persistent missionary (Ty Simpkins) and the arrival of Mary (Samantha Morton), Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mother.
If you look at the filmography of Darren Aronofsky, he seems drawn to telling two kinds of stories. The first are films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and Mother! that are designed to be endurance tests. The Whale is more of a piece with films like The Wrestler, where characters grapple with their physicality and struggle with the demands of a “normal” life.
The Whale is based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, and Aronofsky’s adaptation very much feels like a filmed version of the stage play. With a few rare exceptions, the film stays in Charlie’s cluttered apartment and is content to dwell on the behaviors of the characters. At times, the pacing drags a bit and focuses on the physical and emotional agony Charlie lives in. It’s a character piece, a decent one, and I think the only reason it earns the acclaim it does is the astonishing lead performance by Brendan Fraser.** Like the unflinching look at drug addiction in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky doesn’t hold back in showing how Charlie lives. The difference between the two is that the former felt more pitiless, while this film is more compassionate, despite the moments of mawkishness.
That brings up a question. Since The Whale has gotten a great deal of attention due to Brendan Fraser’s performance, commentators have accused the film of being fatphobic and, at bare minimum, a larger actor should have been cast. So…is that accurate? I don’t think so for two reasons. First, The Whale gets made as a movie with Fraser in the lead. It doesn’t get made with an unknown actor of size, and that’s due to the simple economics of Hollywood. Second, there’s a vast difference between someone who’s heavy and someone who’s six hundred pounds. A person at that weight is experiencing a profound health crisis, not unlike someone with terminal cancer. I didn’t watch this film and think, “Ew, fat people are icky!” I thought, “Jesus, that guy is going to die and it’s tragic.”
Does that make Charlie an addict? I think so, though the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter doesn’t make that case. Hunter focuses more on Charlie’s mental state. We learn that, during his marriage, he came out as a gay man and left his family to be with the man he loved. From there, Charlie tries to reckon with his actions and attempts to reconnect with his daughter. For the most part, Hunter’s script offers strong characterization. We generally have a good idea of who these people are, why they feel the way they do, and how they get in their own way. There are moments that are blindingly obvious, particularly the meaning of an essay Charlie reads to himself in times of crisis. The concept was fine, but I would have liked it to have been presented with a little more subtlety.
As far as problems with characterization are concerned, my only issue was with Sadie Sink as Ellie. I have no problems with Sink as an actor and, in fact, she’s got some moments of real power. However, the character of Ellie is more than just a hurt teenager. At times she comes across as a sadist. She’s referred to as “evil.” Is she, or is her character just lashing out? I was never quite sure, and I think that’s less a problem with Sink’s work and more an issue of how she was directed. I suppose this was a situation that was perhaps too subtle for me?
Indeed, the cast all do strong and honest work. For the second time this year, Hong Chau strolled into a movie and quietly did amazing work. As Liz, she masterfully shows her love and frustration toward Charlie. There’s a very real degree of exhaustion with Liz. She knows her friend is committing slow-motion suicide, she’s done everything she possibly can, and it’s all just too much for her.
If you’re going to see this film for any reason, that reason is Brendan Fraser. His performance is exceptional, though unsurprising. If you look at his career, you’ll see he’s been a creditable action hero with The Mummy, a skilled comedian with Bedazzled, and a subtle and sensitive dramatic actor with Gods and Monsters. While his profile may have fallen due to his being sexually assaulted by a former President of the Hollywood Foreign Press, health issues and some unsuccessful projects, his talent never has. As Charlie, Fraser is sharp, funny, and heartbreaking. He lets us into Charlie’s inner life and shows us who he is and why he’s made the decisions he’s made. There’s been a lot of talk about Fraser having a lock on the Best Actor Oscar. If so, I’m good with it.
They say you should never make a review about yourself, but when you’re writing about how a movie affected you, how can you not? From a purely technical perspective, I recognize that The Whale can get overly sentimental and ploddingly obvious. And yet, I have to be honest with you about how this film made me feel in the moment. There was something about that emotionally open Fraser performance, something about the way it dredged up memories I’ve spent years suppressing. I felt like I was in that lousy little house in Tulsa at a time I couldn’t have experienced. I recognize that The Whale is a flawed film I’ll likely never see again. But the emotional journey it took me on means everything.
*That trope isn’t always used, and Nicolas Cage’s character in Leaving Las Vegas never expresses any guilt for his actions, only a focus toward oblivion.
**The Whale feels similar to Joker in that both are perfectly pretty good films with jaw-dropping lead performances.