TIFF 2022: The Whale Review

Brendan Fraser gives the performance of his career

A BBQ chips and chocolate sauce sandwich might be an acquired taste, but Charlie (Brendan Fraser) devours one insatiably in The Whale. There’s little that Charlie doesn’t scarf in seconds, though. A quartet of large greasy pizzas arrives daily, which Charlie wolfs down with a few litres of pop. The man is 600lbs of self-loathing and he’s eating himself to death. Directed by Darren Aronfsky with sobering precision and performed with gusto by Fraser, The Whale is a devastating portrait of wasted time and heartache. It serves a buffet of riches, ultimately saving the best course for last. It is true nourishment for the soul.

Charlie, an English teacher for virtual classes, never leaves his apartment during The Whale. He’s shut himself off from the world, but also staying home for his safety. The rickety stairs to/from his second floor apartment would buckle under his heavy load. The safety’s also a concern for his soul, as Charlie has never gotten over the death of his boyfriend and worries that nobody could ever find him loveable. He therefore gobbles up food in an attempt to disappear beneath a shield of blubber.

The Whale admittedly engages in a bit of sizism as it relies on the visual power of Fraser’s gigantic presence for equal doses of black humor and stomach-flipping grotesquerie. As Charlie, Fraser could easily give Eddie Murphy’s fat-suited characters in The Nutty Professor a run for their money in the latex department. Aronofsky knows the visual power of his made-up star. Moreover, he grasps how to use the character’s huge size in relation to the small, dank apartment that barely contains him. The Whale offers a transformative experience thanks to the heart Fraser summons from deep within the belly of his prosthetics.

 

Something in the Gut

Charlie knows his time is limited, so he’s chasing the beast that’s long eluded him. He reads an old essay, hand-written in pen, frequently through his final week. The essay reflects upon Moby Dick and analyzes Herman Melville’s classic story. Moreover, this essay intuitively speaks to Charlie. He knows it by heart and painfully recites the author’s deconstruction of Captain Ahab’s quest to kill the titular whale as a tragic distraction from his own pitiable life. Charlie obviously relates to the author’s shrewd analysis. However, The Whale features a fascinating dramatic force as Charlie sees his own life in the reading. Namely, what happens to Captain Ahab when the beast he’s determined to harpoon is himself?

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The Whale swims towards Captain Ahab’s fateful slaughter throughout Charlie’s final week. The film gets Biblical as it brings a series of visitors into the whale’s den. A missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), offers news of the Lord’s compassion that Charlie’s heard before. The young man lets Charlie share how he’s made peace with this world and wants no more part of it.

Meanwhile, Charlie’s indefatigable friend and caregiver Liz (Hong Chau) tirelessly tends to his health. Liz knows it’s a losing battle, but she is a compassionate stalwart as she forecasts that Charlie has roughly one week to live. (He refuses to go to the hospital despite a blood pressure that would have most people dialing 9-1-1.) Liz fights with all her heart to summon Charlie’s desire to live, knowing the loss that eats away at him as savagely as he tucks into an extra-large meat lovers’ pizza. Fraser’s emotionally attuned performance conveys how one can be completely detached from the selfless love that surrounds them. This is a biting, aching portrait of what it means to shut oneself off from the world.

 

School of Fish

Then there’s Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s Charlie’s estranged daughter from his marriage to Mary (Samantha Morton). Charlie hasn’t seen Ellie in years and wants to make amends before swimming away. Ellie, though, is as guarded with Charlie as he is with others. She hasn’t forgiven him for following his heart and leaving his family to be with a man. One of his students, no less, which gives Ellie a victory point by suggesting that his love was illicit.

The scenes between Fraser and Sink see a life force emerge from Charlie’s cellulite shield. Charlie radiates pride and joy in Ellie’s presence, which makes his resignation from life doubly vexing. He obviously still has so much love to give. Sink, meanwhile, gives a powerhouse performance as the young woman who is equally shielded. Ellie recognizes her repulsion over Charlie’s protective wall, though, and summons a great awakening in herself to make up for lost time. Amid a stacked cast of exceptional supporting turns by Chau, Simpkins, and Morton, Sink holds her own and is essential to The Whale’s deeply cathartic finale.

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A Whale of a Performance

The ensemble of The Whale, moreover, bolsters the star turn at the film’s centre. Charlie is a transformative, career-defining performance for Brendan Fraser. It is simply astonishing the level of vulnerability and humility he brings to this character. What makes the masterful performance so captivating is the earnest grasp for lost time. Fraser, who has always been a reliable screen presence among Hollywood’s leading men, has never really been treated seriously as a dramatic actor until now. Even in his best roles, he’s the supporting player, doing to Michael Caine and Ian McKellen what Sink and Chau do for him in The Whale.

If there’s an appetite to be commended, though, it’s the voracious hunger with which Fraser devours this meaty role. The Whale is to Fraser what The Wrestler was to Mickey Rourke. This is one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime performances that will endure. Come awards season, he’s gonna need a bigger boat.

The Whale screened as part of TIFF 2022, which runs from September 8 to 18. 

Head here for more from the festival.



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