The Whale review: Brendan Fraser is devastating & destined for an Oscar

Brendan Fraser in The WhaleA24

The Whale is a high-concentrate dose of Darren Aronofksy’s specialty, be it a balm or poison: harrowing majesty, headlined by Brendan Fraser in one of the most devastating performances of the 21st century.

An addict clutching her scrunched bag of heroin; a wrestler purging his own reckoning with a hail-mary leap; a dancer stabbing her own sanity in the pursuit of perfection; Mother Earth setting the Garden of Eden alight for mankind’s razing of its smallest splendours.

Look upon the catharsis of Aronofsky’s films, ye mighty, and despair. He deploys misery with a perceptive, irresistible sincerity; a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe to those who choose to experience his visions.

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The Whale isn’t as surreal, intellectually demanding, or great – in the true sense of the word. Yet, its mammoth poignancy, conjured with a soon-to-be-Oscar-winning turn from Brendan Fraser and a gut-hollowing script, is bound to be the root of puffed cheeks for months, if not years to come.

The Whale review: Brendan Fraser plays a tragic, obese recluse

Fraser plays Charlie, a morbidly obese recluse who can’t stand freely, laugh, or masturbate without the risk of cardiac arrest. Death doesn’t faze him; time and time again, he shrugs off advice to go to the hospital, choosing to remain an extension of his sunken sofa, overeating to the point of asphyxiation and vomiting on pizzas, meatball subs, fried chicken, and other junk food.

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He’s not a freeloader, nor does he take pride in his size. His life is defined by whatever he can reach (with the assistance of grabbers) or order to his apartment, where he works as a remote English professor who never shows his face.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal the source of his hermit-dom: Charlie left his wife (Samantha Morton) and daughter (Sadie Sink) for a man, who later killed himself. His feeds offer respite, no matter how brief or sickening, and justifying his solitude, he says: “Look at me, who’d want me to be a part of their life?”

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The Whale review: Sadie Sink turns it up to 11

“Stagy” is a redundant observation of The Whale. Samuel D. Hunter adapted his own play for the screen, and it unfolds over the course of a week within a single location, so it’s the equivalent of calling pizza fries “cheesy.”

The fault of the film isn’t its confines, necessarily; these are distilled characters, and Aronofsky clearly wasn’t aiming for subtlety. That said, we are subjected to rather heavy theatrics, bolstered by Rob Simonsen’s steering, emotive score and a script that can feel more interested in anger and horror than the resolution or meaning of such feelings.

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Sadie Sink in The WhaleA24

Ty Simpkins’ Thomas, a “New Life” missionary who credits fate with his arrival at Charlie’s door, is the worst victim of The Whale’s flaws. His trajectory doesn’t have a clear emotional through line, and while the actor has a bright-eyed, smiley charm, the movie can’t seem to make head nor tail of his purpose in Charlie’s final days, no more key than the faceless pizza man, yet given substantial space in the runtime.

Sink’s Ellie, his estranged, enraged daughter, is difficult to take. By design, she’s one of the most infuriating, distastefully mean teenagers put to screen, calling her dad “disgusting” to his face, trolling him on her personal Facebook to a non-existent audience, and hellbent on making him feel just a smidge of the anger she holds.

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If Fraser portrays Charlie as a gentle, fragile giant, a father who happily heralds the merits of his child’s cruelty, the Stranger Things actress delivers each word like a violent twist of the knife. The real question is this: is it the fault of the performance or writing – or both – that Ellie’s venom feels strained to the point of inauthenticity, when some slight nuance could have explored the clear cracks in her furious veil? I suspect it’s the latter, as the script has little interest in anything other than her rage until it absolutely can’t.

Chau is the standout of the supporting cast, navigating Liz’s stream of anxiety, sadness, and merciful enabling with ease. Her warm dynamic with Fraser provides some of the more wholesome moments in the film – although, the “beep beep beep” gag feels out of pocket – and has something to say about the conflicts of care and love.

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The Whale review: Brendan Fraser is even better than you’ve heard

It’s impossible to comment on Aronofsky’s direction without praising the star it’s orbiting: Fraser’s performance isn’t revelatory in terms of talent, but it’s executed with never-before-seen depth and deft calculation. Even when the movie makes his character grotesque, he’s already won our empathy, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else with the stature to make Charlie work. One scene, with Fraser wailing, “I need to know I did one thing right with my life,” is among the most moving line deliveries I’ve ever seen.

Charlie is a man whose body is the lees of his better being; while Ishmael said the sea had drowned the infinite of the castaway’s soul, his grief has only restored his love – not just for his daughter, or his late partner, but honesty in all forms. Fraser conveys all of this and more. Oscars shouldn’t be the natural endgame of great work, but it would border on an injustice he doesn’t win next year.

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When I say Aronofsky treats Charlie as a sight to behold, it isn’t with a pointing finger and a snigger. His immensity, realized with extraordinary prosthetics, is crucial and not-at-all indulgent. His ginormous lumbering, somewhere between a dripping monolith and a leviathan, is key to who he is: his size is a means to an end, the result of a disorder with suicide in mind.

Some may call the film fatphobic, but it never relishes his struggles or mocks him from the POV of the viewer; any insults hurled at him say more about the thrower, and the occasional graphic moment – like Charlie washing himself in the shower – only helps paint a complete picture of life in his skin. The horrifying nature of one of his binges, triggered by feeling “disgusting”, serves the trauma we’re beginning to share in the audience, rather than any fear of being fat.

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The Whale review score: 8/10

The Whale is more of a spectacle than a portrait; its pain is dramatic and heart-wrenching, and the last 15 minutes will turn on the taps of your tear ducts.

If the film sometimes lacks delicacy, Brendan Fraser doesn’t – this is the best performance of the year, and the perfect “reintroduction” to a titan of the movies.

The Whale is due for release on December 9, 2022.