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The Whale Movie Review | Movie Metropolis

Mentioning Darren Aronofsky’s name in a cluster of film critics is a lot like unpinning a grenade on a battlefield where sharp wit and scathing reviews are typically favoured over weaponry. To say the least, he is a man who generates debate. 

Over 5 years later I can still pinpoint the exact moment I realised I well and truly, through to the last fibre of my being, hated his pseudo-biblical, pseudo-environmentally-conscious, profanely indulgent 2017 gore fest Mother!

If his latest A24 flick hadn’t been met with a standing ovation at several film festivals, I doubt I could’ve stomached to do more than glance in its direction if I spotted it decades down the line in a thrift market. And yet, The Whale absolutely surprised me in a way that Aronofsky has not been able to before. 

It is difficult to accurately describe my distant relationship with Brendan Fraser in a manner which does not reek of borderline obsession. Like many early Gen Z-ers I was raised on The Mummy; and god help it if you accidentally stumbled upon it whilst channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon, because turning it off was near sacrilegious in our household. I quoted Looney Tunes: Back In Action with the same manic passion that I brought to every re-watch of 1997’s live action remake of George of the Jungle

Yet despite Fraser’s big hits, it was his long departure from the spotlight that cemented my fascination. When he returned suddenly and spectacularly as the sinister jailer in the third season of The Affair, it seemed to be the whispers of greater things to come. Seeing him land the lead role in the latest Darren Aronofsky feature felt like the resurgence in Fraser’s career that I had dreamed of, but never quite believed would come to fruition. 

Brendan Fraser in The Whale

In a film that unabashedly confronts the anguish of the human condition- our desperation to love and be loved, and the misery that arises if these requirements are not met- Brendan Fraser is the sanguine beacon that stops the viewer from drowning in The Whale’s sorrow. Fraser’s character Charlie is a gravely obese online tutor struggling to reconnect with his daughter as he confronts the reality that he is slowly eating himself to death. Despite the many losses he has accumulated in his life which have led him to become a recluse, Charlie never fails to see the glints of a silver lining in the treacherous storm which swirls around his every waking day. 

Throughout the film Fraser’s character repeatedly returns to an essay written by one of his students on Moby Dick. The student evaluates that the author of the novel Herman Melville, when describing the whale in greater detail across several chapters, is unconsciously doing so in order to save us from his own sadness. Charlie mimics this in that it is he that saves us, the audience, from his own despair through his devastating optimism. To say Fraser is a delight from start to finish is simply not enough. His joy, his misery, and his hope, guide every scene of the film, and keep the audience afloat in even the most ghastly moments of Samuel D. Hunter’s writing. 

Excluding a handful of brief balcony scenes, the entirety of The Whale takes place within Charlie’s dingy apartment where a very literal feeling of stagnation has embedded itself deep into the room’s crevices. Coupled with Aronofsky’s often intimate camera work, the audience becomes trapped here alongside him. Every open and close of the apartment door morphs into a capital letter or punctuation point which book-ends scene after scene. In an environment leaden with the inescapable fear of a confrontation lurking around every corner, it becomes entirely down to the characters to help us navigate the narrative. 

Luckily for us, Fraser is not the only delight. From Hong Chau’s nurse and friend to Charlie, Liz, to Sadie Sink’s vibrant portrayal of Charlie’s sadistic daughter, each performance has a dazzling essence of humanity to it that will touch any audience. But the funniest and saddest moments of The Whale would be incomplete without Rob Simosen’s gorgeous soundtrack which rushes in and out like the tide throughout the film’s 2 hour runtime- and it’s one I’ll certainly be listening to for months to come. 

The Whale is an active movie-going experience in the sense that you do not leave its messages behind in the cinema, but haul them out into the world with you long after the credits have finished rolling. Even if its exact morals sometimes feel hard to pinpoint, the overwhelming desire towards a more empathetic way of living is clear. Ignoring the protests of the other characters, what could have been a deeply tragic film is elevated by Charlie’s cheerfulness into something deeply poignant. Don’t get me wrong, tears may run, but it won’t be from the type of despairing narrative that we’ve come to expect of Aronofsky.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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