On more than one occasion during The Whale, I nearly closed my eyes.
But that would be a violation of the compact of cinema. Each time I walk into a theater, I commit to that experience. The filmmakers have labored over every frame. Films take years, even lifetimes, to make. The least I owe them is my full attention.
I’ve seen serious films about genocide. About murder. Human trafficking. Domestic abuse. Racism. And never flinched. But twice during The Whale I looked at the corner of the screen. I could only handle is most graphic moments with peripheral vision.
Brendan Fraser has created a performance so vulnerable, to call it fearless would be an understatement. His visual transformation into a morbidly obese character is astonishing. Brendan Fraser’s sedentary professor looks at Robert DeNiro’s Raging Bull and says “hold my beer.”
Director Darren Aronofsky is no stranger to bringing intentional discomfort to audiences. The drug-addiction scenes in Requiem for a Dream are lurid. They contain intense experiences, but stylized to the extreme. The Whale takes a new mode. Gone are the zany camera movements. Gone are the inventive splices. Present is a relentless sense of direct observation. It’s hard to believe this is the same filmmaker who made Pi and The Fountain.
The central character of The Whale‘s highest value is honesty. Aranofsky has embraced that as the guiding principle at the core of every stylistic choice. Yes, it’s contained within one location. Yes, it’s adapted from a stage play. But it still feels just as engaging as anything Aranofsky has done.
Fraser’s work is the fundamental core of the film – but there’s also a strong ensemble of supporting actors. Hong Chau, in particular, is a standout. Her portrayal of a friend and caretaker to a tragically self-destructive man is imbued with empathy and profound sadness. Sadie Sink and Ty Simpkins round the orbit of Fraser as highly charged particles – colliding, reckless, alive with young energy waiting to break free of the decaying nucleus. Samantha Morton strolls into the picture past the halfway mark and reminds us all why she can be such a formidable presence when given the right material. Seems like it’s been too long since the last time I saw her performing on such an elevated plane. Maybe I’ve just missed some of her more recent stuff?
This film should stay with you for days after seeing it. Even if you have to occasionally avert your eyes.