From the first minute, The Whale is suffused with dread. The director Darren Aronofsky has long specialized in that type of atmosphere; even when working on the tiniest scale, he conjures mounting horror out of the mundane. His latest work closely echoes prior films such as π and Requiem for a Dream, both claustrophobic epics with thudding scores and dreary outlooks. But in The Whale, which is adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play, the sinister mood immediately feels at odds with the subject. The protagonist, Charlie (played by Brendan Fraser), is completely housebound and on the brink of death because of extreme binge-eating. His confinement is abject, but the source of his pain is deeply relatable: grief.
Charlie has been in a severe depressive state since the loss of his partner. Unable to take care of himself, he’s become a frustrating figure to friends, family, and strangers alike, all of whom keep dropping by to have big, meaningful chats with him. He refuses to seek medical care despite being in obvious physical distress; instead, he allows only his pal Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse, to take his blood pressure at home, while she frets over her inability to do more for him. He’s almost entirely disconnected from his ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). (He does, however, try to bridge the gap with Ellie by promising to do her homework.) By the time The Whale begins, Charlie has reached a point where reversing the decline of his health is impossible.
The situation is rendered as both horrifying and pitiable, especially because Charlie, although resigned to the limits of his apartment, still does crave some human interaction. Aronofsky, whose oeuvre of alienation-focused psychodramas also includes Black Swan and Mother, indulges his penchant for the foreboding—but then refuses to ever switch it up. Some scenes try to present Charlie as sympathetic and complex, and Fraser’s performance, delivered through multilayered makeup and prosthetics, still manages to be the most direct part of the movie. (It’s also the most controversial.) Unfortunately, almost everything else is garishly grim, a spectacle of misery that displays its central character like a zoo animal.
The story’s overly precise structure bears some of the blame for its relentlessness. Hunter himself adapted the script from his original play, and the film closely follows straightforward transitions, peeling back the mystery of Charlie’s situation through a series of encounters. First, a religious missionary called Thomas (Ty Simpkins) knocks on Charlie’s door and finds him in the middle of a cardiac event; Thomas, a stranger, keeps returning because he’s determined to save this doomed man’s soul. Next, there’s Liz, who berates Charlie for his overeating while also providing him with meatball subs every time she comes by—a passive witness to his binges (which are always depicted with crude menace and Rob Simonsen’s overwhelming score).
Then comes Ellie, who has not seen her father in years and regards him with disgust, mostly because he’s been so absent from her life. Charlie vainly struggles to free his daughter from her nihilistic perspective on life. Meanwhile, she and Thomas form a strange connection and start digging into Charlie’s past, trying to understand the full circumstances of the death that has wrecked him. But revealing the how and why of Charlie’s deep sadness is just not as psychologically intricate as Hunter or Aronofsky seem to think it is—and besides, more time is spent gawking at Charlie’s physical strain.
The problem is that Aronofsky is transfixed by Charlie in all the wrong ways, positioning him as a walking house of horrors. That exhibitionist gaze clashes awkwardly with the story’s supposed humanism and Charlie’s insistence that “people are amazing” even when they’re being cruel. Fraser makes a powerful effort to project that tenderness: He doesn’t shy away from exposing Charlie’s self-destructive streak, but he foregrounds the character’s abiding love for others, if not for himself.
I never felt that nuance from Aronofsky’s mise-en-scène. He turns the apartment into a dark, bitter sanctum, and often shows the slowly shuffling Charlie from behind and below, so that the character appears to be a looming monster. I am not opposed to body horror, but the genre is best suited to vulgar ends. The Whale is presenting itself as something noble and, ultimately, uplifting, but it just can’t make that sale. In the end, the project falls prey to the same trap as Charlie’s judgmental visitors do: seeing only a symbol where they could have seen a person.