Movie Recommendation: The Whale
Dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2022
I don't watch movies with the mindset of providing a critical review or seeking movies to write about. Rather these recommendation posts reflect moments I finished watching a movie and felt driven to tell the world about it!
I only recommend movies I'm excited about and eager for you to see.
This movie’s legit.
The Whale is about a morbidly obese online English teacher named Charlie who starts to show the signs of cardiac arrest and knows he has one week left to do whatever he can to set his life right.
Not able to move much on his own, his apartment becomes the meeting point and passageway of lost characters all struggling with regret and fears of their past: his estranged daughter, her fuming and resentful mother, his bitter and to some degree overprotective caretaker, and a young missionary who sees Charlie as his one chance to save someone.
And Thomas, the religious zealot, isn’t the only one trying to save someone: all of the characters in some way are trying to save each other through their own selfish drives at redemption.
The Whale is based on a play and shows it: save for a couple flashbacks, everything happens around Charlie’s apartment, and an unintentional humor is how often one character enters to shout at another character to leave. However, Aronofsky uses the closeness of the camera in such a contained space and compresses it further with a 4:3 aspect ratio to keep the story carefully intimate and caring.
I recently discussed in my recent interview withthe importance Darren Aronofsky had on my interest in filmmaking. Requiem for a Dream was one of a trio of movies I saw one fateful winter day that exploded every notion I had of cinema’s limitations and made me decide then and there I wanted to make movies.
I’ve remained a pretty faithful Aronofsky fan since, through his career’s ups and downs. And one thing I know about his work is that most people don’t like it. Aronofsky is caught in a vice clamp between regular moviegoers who don’t want to leave a movie feeling disturbed or wildly depressed, and arthouse cinephiles who tend to criticize his work as overstyled and hamfisted. The p word comes up a lot from both sides: pretentious.
And his previous movie, mother!, seemed almost built out of everyone’s worst complaints about him. I loved it, but because it was a wild ride and I have a soft spot for indulgent cinema. The screen sometimes needs pure id, and Aronofsky had the ego to go for it. Good on him. Didn’t make my arguments for his work overall any easier.
So here’s my earnest take, which I hope detractors read and keep an open mind on: The Whale is the movie most Aronofsky haters are most likely to actually appreciate. It’s driven mostly by the stellar writing of the original playwright, Samuel D. Hunter; it’s a very contained, intimate look at a community reeling from grief and the need for spiritual relief; and it’s driven by the actors putting in their best work.
One of my favorite things about Aronofsky’s style of directing is that he’s really great at getting you into the subjective, emotional experience of the characters. Watching The Wrestler (the most comparable movie to The Whale) was like feeling the weight of all Randy Robinson’s mass slowly succumb to gravity. Even Noah, my least favorite of his movies, did a really good job creating the strong emotional feeling of an ineffable and watching “creator” who nevertheless is invisible and only known by his works.
The Whale actually isn’t much like that. Weird to say that as a praise, but it’s a nice showcase that Aronofsky is also versatile with a different approach. In The Whale you spend a lot of time looking at people’s angry faces, trying to understand the emotion wounds of which scars they’re hiding. Aronofsky somehow grokked that his job was to get the camera in close so you can take in all the emotional stakes, and then stand back and let the actors do the rest.
And final statement on that: when I heard about the concept of a movie called “The Whale” about a morbidly obese man, I felt very uncomfortable. When I heard Darren Aronofsky was helming it, I felt even more uncomfortable. When I heard that Brendan Fraser was performing in it, I finally had trust that the subject would be handled carefully. Fraser is gem of an actor who always showcases a humane warmth, and even when he plays comedic roles its always with a playful approach of laughing with people rather than making fun or mocking anyone.
And of course he nailed this role masterfully.
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