“Why are you fucking with me like this?” Sadie Sink cries out to Brendan Fraser late in “The Whale,” in an exchange that can be read as the film’s climax or its resolution, depending on your outlook. As I watched the emotionally charged, dramatically over-the-top scene unfold, I wanted to be able to pose the question right back at filmmaker Darren Aronofsky.
Had the movie been directed by someone else – I’ll refrain from rattling off the laundry list of names that come to mind when I brainstorm “technically competent, but artistically shameless Oscar-hankerers” – I might have been ready to dismiss it as overwrought posturing, then and there. But for all of Aronofsky’s indulgently big swings, posturing he is not. And to think that the man who gave us the deliberately confounding “The Fountain” and “mother!” would suddenly succumb to middlebrow pandering just wasn’t credible.
Posturer or panderer, perhaps not… but provocateur, decidedly so. The film’s title, “The Whale,” seemingly refers to a morbidly obese man, played by Fraser, who habitually struggles to waddle (with the help of a walker) to the front door to collect his daily delivery of two pepperoni and sausage-covered pizzas. Perhaps we’ve entered a post-“Norbit” era where it’s politically forbidden to treat such a concept outwardly as camp, but I remind you: the movie is called “The Whale.”
Even after we realize early on that there may be more to that title than we thought going in, this is hardly a film that defies one’s expectations at every turn. On the contrary, it leans into them, in the way that the most compelling works of provocation do, those that are less about ‘converting’ the viewer to a point-of-view than they are about self-examination.
But to what end? What point could Aronofsky the Provocateur possibly be trying to make with this punishingly intimate view of a character enduring a circle of hell that, for him – and more real-world equivalents than we’d like to confront – is inescapable and unchangeable. What is the filmmaker trying to get at by presenting us with a blood pressure reading of 238/134 for Fraser’s Charlie, making the scene less about the imminent danger to his health and more about the downright superheroic nature of his survival? We don’t just see him binge-eat the aforementioned pizza, we see him stack two slices on top of one another, and then wheel himself to the refrigerator to douse the double-decker bus in ranch.
As I sit and reflect on the wholly engrossing, if often disconcerting experience of watching the film, I’m beginning to think that the point lies in the very cinematic exercise. Could Aronofsky be using a story about a man who refuses to see a doctor at all costs as a sort of “physical exam” for character-driven cinema itself? Before you click away from this review laughing at the pretention of that question, hear me out (and let’s try to get on the movie’s level, shall we?).
By operating in the widest possible range of registers, painting with as broad a brush as he used to bring his Biblical epic “Noah” to life but within the confines of a modest home in Idaho, perhaps Aronofsky is testing our reflexes as filmgoers. He’s giving us the most extreme, most melodramatic possible notes of the despair, the disgust, the grunge, the love, and ultimately the hope and the optimism of this story, as if to affirm that we’re still healthy and capable of engaging with these emotions on the big screen. He’s searching for a pulse. After all, audiences are not necessarily regularly encountering them at the multiplex anymore, as these types of stories have increasingly been relegated to the small screen, sidelined in favor of a different kind of spectacle. Maybe they need to be this grand.
Such an exaggerated style is easily mistaken for sanctimoniousness or dare I say corpulence when the scale of the story being told is this confined. But I would argue that’s only because television has conditioned us, as entertainment consumers, to a new set of standards for dialogue-driven character dramas. It’s not hard to envision a TV-tailored adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s source play, adhering to the much more subdued brand of faux-dignification that dominates the dozens of Emmy-nominated cable dramas overrun by slick, grey visual palettes to match. We’ve been taught to reject melodrama that crescendos past a certain decibel level.
Aronofsky’s provocation lies in not just exceeding that level, but blowing past it. In “The Whale,” brought to life in stunningly textured Academy-ratio compositions realized by longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique, the filmmaker runs wild with both the breadth and intensity of the emotions. And if we recognize that cinema is not about replicating our lives in the everyday world – the same space that our televisions literally occupy – but about transporting us to another space where we can reflect on both our lives and those of others, then why shouldn’t he?
I think my initial skepticism towards the film’s aesthetic stemmed from a fear that its no-holds-barred melodrama might too easily play into the prevailing narrative about adult-oriented cinema’s supposed decline. In other words, it could conveniently be pegged as the kind of laughably serious, self-congratulatory work that supposedly turned people off from non-blockbusters for good, replaced by the “superior” television alternative. To hell with that fear, and to hell with that prevailing narrative.
When the movie is a little rough around the edges, it’s only because movies are supposed to be messy, not conveniently packaged into eight-episode arcs. If the wildly divergent acting styles employed by supporting players Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, and Samantha Morton had each been spotlighted on different episodes of a series, critics might ponder whether the showrunner didn’t rigorously enforce a unified aesthetic across all of the directors. But in a movie, the whiplash of transitioning from Morton’s traditionally “theatrical” conveyance of maternal disillusionment to Sink’s organically eruptive expressions of justified teen angst tells us more about their relationship than any amount of shared screen time ever could have. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that Sink is truly outstanding in the film as Charlie’s daughter Ellie, validating my strong assumption that she might have the chops based on “Stranger Things” and “Fear Street: Part Two,” which didn’t necessarily demand as much from her.
Then there’s Brendan Fraser in the lead. I realize it’s burying the lede to be saving a discussion of his performance for this deep into a review. But not for lack of admiration. Indeed, it is among the most all-encompassing and transformative performances I’ve ever seen, transcending its stunt-casting and prosthetic-enhanced physicality to become something human and improbably credible. There are, of course, parallels to what Aronofsky did with Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” facilitating a dramatic rebirth for a dormant star, but they’re surface-level. Each choice Fraser makes somehow evades the cartoonishness of the central conceit, challenging us to engage with Charlie in a genuinely empathetic way, a dignity many of us would likely never extend to this character in another form. My other reason for withholding about Fraser until now is that this isn’t one of those landmark performances that are the movie, in and of themselves. To write about “The Whale” as such almost feels dismissive – this is a vision Fraser is serving, and it’s a much more complicated vision than countless Oscar bloggers have been willing to engage with.
Does the film cohere in the way that Aronofsky’s best works do? I don’t think so. There’s no final moment of transcendence where it all just adds up perfectly, as there was when Randy leaped off the top rope, when Nina gasped to proclaim that she was perfect as she bled out, and when Sara escaped into her imagination. One of Aronofsky’s strengths has long been taking the sprawling and crystallizing it into an unforgettable image at the end. Ultimately, “The Whale” feels like the same kind of “idea movie” as many of its predecessors, but doomed to a somewhat more literal ending. It tries to grapple with the inherently underwhelming nature of such an inevitability, but doesn’t quite crack it. There’s a capstone image on a beach that feels obvious and a little unsatisfying.
But maybe the point is that endings are overrated. Nobody pays attention to a man’s final moments; they focus on what came before them. “Why are you fucking with me like this?” Ellie frantically asks, grasping for the same elusive sense of affirming finality as the viewer. Maybe the answer is simply that if we’re not fucking with each other, we aren’t really feeling anything at all.