The word-of-mouth and promotion of The Whale (2022) have been in full force since Cannes. Even when we didn’t know what it was about, other than Brendan Fraser being in a fat suit, people clamored to learn more about the film. There hasn’t been a decent trailer until recently, which is unlike A24. In the past few years, U.S. audiences have deemed Brendan Fraser to be a national treasure. I guess he disappeared for a while from the industry, but he was “around.” He had supporting roles in the television series Condor (2018) and Trust (2018) and stepped back into films in 2019. Due to all its positive buzz, The Whale seems like Fraser’s pièce de resistance, more than a comeback.
The Whale is based on a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. Darren Aronofsky directed the film, a departure in terms of his usual scale and storytelling for him. The story does not rely on grand set pieces or special effects. Mimicking how the play is told (I assume), the focus is on Charlie’s (Brendan Fraser) apartment, and we only get to see outside his building a few times. Charlie is an obese man who is also a shut-in. It is debatable which came first, the weight that precluded his ability to leave his apartment or avoiding the outside world. At some point, it is revealed that he lives on the second floor, and it is immediately apparent that he has not been able to leave his home for years. Charlie’s health has deteriorated so much that he has cardiac events, but he refuses to go to the hospital. He teaches English classes on writing virtually, leaving his camera off, so his students never actually see him. His friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, is his only connection to the outside world. She begs him to get help beyond what she can, but he is stubborn and almost willing for his end to come.
The film is told in days of the week, and the beginning starts with a bang as a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), knocks on Charlie’s door just as he is having a cardiac event. Shortly thereafter, Liz arrives and takes over his care. The week is of Charlie evaluating his life and what went wrong. While he cannot make amends for many things, he attempts to reconcile with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is not the best version of herself, and rightly so, as she was abandoned by her father several years ago. For whatever reason, Charlie has latched onto this repair of his relationship with Ellie as something he must do no matter what.
The Whale is not a complicated film in terms of its story or setting, but it is if you examine each of its characters. Each has deep flaws and is far from perfect; They ignore what is really at the core of themselves, the root of the problem. Ignoring the situation as they move along in life but not confronting the issues keeps them tethered in the past, unable to move on. The only character attempting to resolve issues is Charlie, who is on a limited timeline.
I have seen criticisms of the casting of Brendan Fraser as Charlie as opposed to casting someone who already was obese. I have no clue whether the casting department saw any actors that met the physical description of Charlie; however, I believe that Fraser was the best choice for the role based on his performance. Much of the film revolves around his voice and kind face, especially his striking blue eyes, which further convey what kind of man he is. Charlie is very innocent in his mannerisms and the way he speaks to people. The guy doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Fraser could envelop Charlie and take out his hate and frustrations on Charlie’s physical body rather than anyone else.
The film is centered around the Moscow, Idaho area, what is referred to as the Palouse. I spent my graduate school years there, and it was exciting to figure out the setting as the film progressed. Samuel D. Hunter is from the area, and the script and setting gave nods to its location without fully stating where they were. The costume designer and set dresser did their research on the area, and it made the film more enjoyable to me, although it probably wouldn’t make any difference to those not familiar with the area.
The Whale is an emotionally complex film that tries to convey, in my opinion, that forgiveness and acceptance are possible. Although he paid the ultimate price for his choices, love was worth the risk for Charlie. There are a lot of negative emotions running through the film and subjects that may be controversial to some. The motives of the characters are problematic at best, especially in regard to Ellie and Thomas. The film revolves around Charlie, but each person he comes into contact with that week is affected by him somehow. The film is outstanding in telling Charlie’s story without frills, and it is firmly centered on its main character with minimal embellishments. It is one of the year’s best films, filled with one of the year’s most outstanding performances courtesy of Brendan Fraser.
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