Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser
Rated: R (For for language, some drug use and sexual content)
There is an online course where a teacher talks to his students about writing. He is giving advice on how to expand their view on the world, to reach inside and think about what they read, and to think about life differently. He speaks this while his computer camera remains off. The camera is off for a reason (and it is an ironic one). For while the teacher – Charlie (Brendan Fraser) – encourages his students to expand their horizons, he is a morbidly obese recluse who is confined to his apartment. He spends his days eating food, grading papers, and masturbating to gay porn.
The only company he gets is his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tries to keep him alive while she simultaneously enables his destructive lifestyle by bringing him unhealthy food (and maybe the pizza delivery boy, who speaks to him through the door but has no idea what his best customer looks like). It is a sad and tragic life, and audience members going to see “The Whale” are likely to feel repulsed by the man they see in front of them. Right off the bat director Darren Aronofsky makes it a point to have the audience confront who Charlie is: a tragic figure who has the same feelings, sexual desires, and heartache any normal person has.
His weight is result of tragedy in his life that he was unable to cope with, and that weight is finally catching up with him; when he discovers that he is suffering from congestive heart failure he makes one last attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter. He refuses to go to the hospital, claiming that he doesn’t have the money to seek medical treatment. In reality we sense that he simply feels his life is no longer worth living. He does get one additional visitor in the form of a teenage evangelist, who may not be able to help Charlie in the real world but whom believes his soul can be saved in the afterlife. Charlie rolls his eyes at the young man and puts up with his Bible talk, but secretly seems to enjoy having a new friend to speak to.
“The Whale” doesn’t shy away from the depressing subject material that is fostered on the audience. I expect this to be a very polarizing film with how it portrays obesity. Although Brendan Fraser’s marvelous performance rightfully has been receiving standing ovations at film festivals there has been much discussion on whether or not the film takes part in “fat shaming.” That’s a difficult question to answer because the movie clearly pities Charlies state of affairs. Scenes of him eating himself to death are difficult to watch (and certainly made my wife turn away in shame at times). The movie is not trying to hide its distain for Charlies body. On the other hand, I think most would agree that Charlie is far from a healthy man.
While many of us may not know people like Charlie, that is because they tend to live at home without getting out of the house much. If someone does weigh 600 lbs. (the movie never specifies exactly how much he weighs, so we’re forced to guess) it is unlikely they are living a fulfilling life. As someone who was heading down this path and topped out at a little over 350lbs at one, I see no issue with media that wants to discourage viewers from heading down such a terrible path. Ultimately, I don’t feel the film is fatphobic because Charlie is a man with a heart of gold. When he does reconnect with his daughter she treats him like the scum of the Earth, and her anger at him for leaving his family many years ago can be felt by everyone watching.
Though we hate this girl with every inch of our fiber, Charlie believes that she is a good person deep down inside. At least, I find he is more compassionate than I could ever be. Where “The Whale” truly shines is the ability to makes Charlie’s world small and confined while also making Charlie himself loveable and hopeful. The movie is even shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, meaning black bars are shown on the side of the screen. These bars enclose Charlie’s world even more, making him take up the vast majority of the screen. By forcing audiences to focus on him we see the human beneath the body fat, and thus relate to someone we would normally scorn in real life.
Despite all the praises I could sing about Aronofsky’s direction and Fraser’s performance, there is a good chance many of you will not want to watch the film. Just the idea of spending time with someone like Charlie may be too much for some people, and it is a shame because “The Whale” does what great movies do: they give us a chance to spend time with someone we normally wouldn’t spend time with and see the world through his eyes. Personally, I find that accusations of ‘fat shaming’ to be mere distractions to the bigger picture, in that more movies like “The Whale” are needed in the world. It gives us an empathetic view of a tragic figure that society mocks and frowns upon, but who has many of the same needs and desires we do. It may not be a revolutionary message, but the execution sure is.
NOTE: Forgive the lack of photos in this review. The studio only made the poster and the above image available to critics, so readers will have to see the film to see anything else in the movie.