Readers Write In #623: The void and the whale

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Readers Write In #623: The void and the whale

By Karthik Amarnath

For a variety of reasons, I had avoided watching Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale”, which stars Brendan Fraser as a morbidly obese English teacher. For one, it had taken me the better part of two decades to get over teenage fat-shaming, and I wasn’t ready to let a film dig into those scars. Especially a film by Darren Aronofsky who specializes in taking a scythe to the human psyche, conjuring claustrophobia inside a character study. That’s another thing. Aronofsky’s patented “surreal psychological” genre hasn’t always worked for me. I had to stop Mother! halfway, and I found Black Swan to be somewhere between disturbing and pretentious. If you ask me, Natalie Portman’s performance in Closer was far more Oscar-worthy than the one she won for in Black Swan. Now with “The Whale,” given all the hype around Brendan Fraser’s performance, and knowing that pounds and pounds of Oscar-baiting prosthetics would bear down on me, I wasn’t sure I would wholly get into the film.

As it turned out, I was wholly wrong, on all counts. 

The film was not really about obesity, at least not directly. Yes, it is centered around a whale of a man— quite literally centered, since almost the entire film is shot around Fraser’s character Charlie. But Charlie’s obesity is just the film’s exterior. Inside is a deeply moving story of a man who could be at peace with himself but for one hopelessly desperate need, to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. In fact, the whale in the film’s title is not a cruel moniker for this man’s appearance, but a kind of metaphor for Moby Dick, which is a story about another man’s hopeless desperation, to catch an elusive white whale. 

In that sense, I could see why Aronofsky might have been drawn to this story, since the Moby Dick metaphor is one that fits all of his movies. Aronofsky’s characters are all like the book’s sea-captain Ahab— deeply traumatized, engaged in fruitless pursuits, engulfed by a painful obsession till it destroys them. In “The Whale,” Charlie is traumatized from having lost a loved one which led him to gain all that weight. And it results in a painful lifestyle which the film has no qualms or sentimentality in showing. We see Charlie struggle to walk, to pee, to bathe, to masturbate. When he climaxes in an early scene, the orgasm causes a cardiac event. But he doggedly refuses to take advise or go to the hospital despite knowing he’s all but assuring his end. 

This doggedness, we see later, stems from Charlie’s desperation to do right by his teenage daughter, Ellie, whom he had forsaken years before. Ellie, who’s played by an electric Sadie Sink, appears in his life after almost ten years, and we quickly see why she might be his white whale. One of the first things she says to him is “you’re disgusting.” The two of them are a study in contrasts. Charlie is mellow, hardly moves, and, to quote his wife, can be annoyingly positive. Ellie is caustic, can’t stay still, and writes that she “hates everyone.” But soon we see that the two of them might not be that different. They both come across as equally self-centered, and their responses to trauma equally extreme. If Charlie had dealt with losing the love of his life by filling himself with food, then Ellie had dealt with losing the love of her father by filling herself with hate. If he can’t help taking that bite of a bologna sandwich or chomping on that cheesy pizza, she cant help making a mean comment, or posting a nasty insta photo. Where the void in Charlie’s life visually manifests as the giant burden of flab he carries, Ellie’s appears as the heightened rage that fills her eyes every time she sees someone. 

The film balances the father and daughter duo with two other characters, a missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and a nurse named Liz (Hong Chao), who by comparison seem more altruistic and more centered. They both genuinely want to help Charlie, one through science, and the other through spirituality. But later we see that they too are dealing with emotional voids, and chasing their own white whales. Liz desperately tries to heal a dying man to overcome her own grief while Thomas feels unfulfilled and desperately tries to convert an assured atheist. 

The film’s strength is in keeping its focus on this quartet of characters so we know them enough, and realize that they are not all that different from each other. You can almost see the hand of the writer (playwright Samuel Hunter) in underlining this through echos and parallels. On two occasions we see two people use the same line used to describe Ellie and Charlie. We see two characters use the same line to comment on Thomas’s looks. There’s one scene where Thomas says the world is full of sinners, and another where Ellie says the world is full of assholes. With just four main characters, this is an intimate film. It’s also an interior film, almost entirely shot inside a living room. But its all written and staged in a way that you don’t for a moment feel claustrophobic. 

Curiously, for a dialogue driven film, characters rarely meet eyes when they speak. Partly it’s the staging; characters are always walking or doing something. But partly it speaks to a recurring theme;  that we don’t want to see people for who they really are, or we don’t want them to see us for who we really are. With Charlie, this is obvious from the very opening scene where he conducts an online essay writing class but doesn’t turn on his camera. But this theme goes beyond just body-image. We see the lengths to which other characters hide things about themselves too. Like one character who’s run far away from home to hide an embarrassing past. Or another character who hides her child for years because she’s embarrassed about her parenting. In fact, Charlie’s obesity is the only truth that cannot be hidden in plain sight, and so the pivotal moment in the film arrives when he realizes that it is pointless to do so. And then in the last act, when all the characters start to see each other, the film gets its big dramatic payoffs.  

The film gives each character plenty of screen time, but the big moments all belong to Charlie. This is a man who is mostly still, but Brendan Fraser uses his expressive eyes to great effect, and he owns these moments. He makes you forget what his character looks like, and pulls you into a broken man who has a boundless capacity for compassion. Just listen to his voice shift as he recounts his love to an unwilling ear. Or watch how he reconnects with an old partner. With a lesser actor, some of the lines might sound cheesy (like ones in the trailer). But the way Charlie’s character is built up, and the way Fraser projects someone who is at once deeply vulnerable and yet desperately hopeful, it’s one of the most moving performances I’ve seen this year.   

If I had any issue with this film, it would be that some of the messaging was repetitive and maybe a tad facile. There’s a bit about how everyone is trying to save someone which is drilled too hard. The thread with the missionary cult was probably stretched more than needed. But these are just quibbles. This is a film with a large heart that beats true. And when you see its enormous capacity for compassion, the flab ceases to matter.

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