Brendan Fraser is back! Well, technically he’s been back but The Whale marks a return to the medium he loves while elevating his status as a master of acting. I was lucky enough to watch The Whale at the Montclair Film Festival, where I was thoroughly unprepared for the force of nature that is Brendan Fraser at the height of his career in a role that he executes with grace.
If you’re going to see The Whale in theaters (which I wholeheartedly recommend), bring a box of tissues. You’ll need them.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Release Date: October 23, 2022 (Montclair Film Festival), December 9, 2022 (US Theatrical)
The Whale is based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play, also titled The Whale. The film follows Charlie (Brendan Fraser), an English professor who never leaves his home and struggles with morbid obesity. Against the wishes of his best friend Liz (Hong Chau), he decides to not seek medical attention for his rapidly declining health. Things in Charlie’s life become more complicated with the arrival of several other characters, including missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), his troubled daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), and his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton). Charlie has become estranged from his family due to his sexuality and his own shame, leading Ellie to think she was abandoned by her father. I think The Whale‘s depiction of a complicated family, shame, and repression are the strongest aspects of the film along with the profound performances given by Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, and Hong Chau.
My thoughts and feelings about The Whale are… complicated, to say the least. I certainly did not find the film to be flawless, as I’ve never been Aronofsky’s biggest fan, but there was something deeply special to me about this movie. I’ve never seen a film that captured the guilt and resentment of childhood abandonment and coming to terms with one’s sexuality written so honestly and empathetically.
While my own family’s situation and Charlie’s are not identical, it hit me hard sitting in that theater. Throughout the duration of the film, I felt each and every character’s pain and aching to have a family. The different ways that each character simultaneously yearned for genuine connection while still fearing the “what ifs” of rejection, the manifestations of regret and shame, and the bubbling anger that comes with not feeling wanted. Something in these emotions – which I have always tied to my own experiences with being queer and having an adopted parent – was translated so effortlessly on screen that I felt a complete emotional release by the film’s end.
Shame is an emotion that burns hot in the stomach and is quick to turn to sadness or anger. For occupants of a small, Mid-Western town, shame is probably something to be internalized and hidden from the unassuming eyes of neighbors and strangers alike. Charlie has completely internalized his shame, which has manifested from his extreme feelings of grief and repression, along with his addiction. The result is a very internalized film: aside from the opening shot, we (the audience along with Charlie) never really leave his small apartment. Before the film, it’s likely only Liz ever entered his space and spoke with him face-to-face.
While this isolation certainly aids in The Whale‘s representation of grief and shame, it forces the majority of the film’s story and structure to rely on the actors and the small space they occupy. Luckily, each performance is strong enough to carry the film over its two-hour runtime, otherwise, it would have been a rather long and boring film.
— Amy Kuperinsky (@AmyKup) October 24, 2022
I think the only aspect of The Whale that I have conflicting thoughts about is the use of prosthetics to portray Charlie’s struggle with obesity. These mixed emotions are not unlike when I find out the actor portraying a queer person is actually cis or straight. Donning a costume or persona is markedly different from living that reality, so it leaves a bad taste in my mouth knowing it’s not the truth.
Following that is my opinion of Aronofsky, a director who is known for using body horror and violence towards bodies to tell his stories. I think The Whale was a departure from his previous filmography, as Charlie’s obesity is deeply intertwined with his internal struggles with shame and grief. Where Aronofsky’s past films depict horror and violence, The Whale asks viewers to be empathetic.
After the screening of The Whale was a discussion between Stephen Colbert and Brendan Fraser, which I didn’t know was happening until the day of the show. The conversation between the two of them gave so much insight into Brendan’s gravitation to this role, and the work that he did to get ready for it. He discussed his own experiences as a dad and his response to the #Brenaissance. It’s nice to see that even after everything the actor has gone through in the past couple of decades, he still loves the art and wants to direct his passion toward projects he loves.
The Whale is a movie about quite a few different ideas: how shame, grief, and repression can become physical manifestations in our lives; religious trauma; broken families. While there still isn’t even a trailer out yet, I think Brendan Fraser will be one of the most talked about actors of the year. He’s just as good as everyone says he is.