Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an English teacher who has become a shut-in and is now close to 600 pounds. As his health rapidly deteriorates over the course of a week, Charlie is visited by a missionary (Ty Simpkins), his friend and nurse (Hong Chau), and eventually, his estranged wife (Samantha Morton) and daughter (Sadie Sink).
Darren Aronofsky's work has always tended towards extremes, and how physicality and spirituality connect and break apart. 'The Wrestler' may have been his most accessible work in this vein, but 'Requiem For A Dream' was equally as violent and vibrant. 'The Whale' is adapted from a stageplay written by Samuel D. Hunter, but it's easy to see why Aronofsky was attracted to it.
'The Whale' works like 'Leaving Las Vegas', in that it's a human being deciding to fully engage in behaviour that will end their life because they cannot reach a place of acceptance. Like Nicolas Cage, Brendan Fraser is more than willing to go to the darkest depths of his soul in order to come back with a harrowing, incredible, awards-worthy performance. Yet, where 'Leaving Las Vegas' had subtlety and grace in its direction, 'The Whale' does the exact opposite and then blows past any kind of awareness of itself by engaging in the very thing that brings forth the shame Fraser's character feels. In 'The Whale', Aronofsky's direction invites us to be disgusted by Fraser's character.
The sound of his chewing is turned up and made wet. Rob Simonsen's score turns things into a horror movie with dire, ominous strings. The camera zooms in and moves around him, gawking at his process like it's a freak show. Later, when Sadie Sink's character violently confronts Fraser's character, he collapses over a table like it's a pathetic pratfall in trying to stand up. While 'Leaving Las Vegas' and more mainstream works like 'A Star Is Born' try to showcase alcoholism at its lowest point by people urinating themselves or throwing up, 'The Whale' is equally obvious but there's an inescapable feeling of hatred there that is impossible to ignore.
All of this serves to frustrate the fact that Brendan Fraser easily gives the best performance of his career in 'The Whale', playing Charlie with tenderness and open-hearted vulnerability. Fraser's abundance of warmth shines throughout, and you can see that he is playing beyond the role and speaking to perhaps his own experience and lived feelings. Samantha Morton has just one scene, but makes a full dent in the movie with the force of her talent. Sadie Sink is able to play the conceited teenage daughter who has been shaped by abandonment, while Hong Chau's caregiver plays her role with incredible nuance.
'The Whale' tries to make guilt and grief physical on Fraser's frame, and that love and acceptance are as reviving and comforting as food. Yet, food for Aronofsky in this has been perverted to something too disgusting to be consumed fully. For a story that is supposed to be about shame robbing people of themselves, 'The Whale' engages in shaming Fraser's character and makes us try to shame him and be complicit in it. The awfulness of that is equal only to the incredible performances, but it's too much and ultimately buries them under it.