The Whale Is Darren Aronofsky’s Worst Film About Self-Destruction

Jan 4, 2023

Editor’s Note: The following contains The Whale spoilers.

To say that Darren Aronofsky’s films “aren’t for the faint of heart” isn’t an understatement, but perhaps it casts his intentions in a poor light. Aronofsky is certainly not a filmmaker like Eli Roth or Rob Zombie who seeks to only push his audiences to their emotional limits, as he certainly has the goal of telling stories about self-destructive characters and generating empathy for them. In the best examples of Aronofsky’s work, he has been able to show complex characters struggling to maintain their health and dignity in poignant, stylistic ways. Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s latest film, The Whale, replaces these stylistic specificities for blunt, emotionally manipulative melodrama that does nothing more than leave the audience feeling bad.

What Is ‘The Whale’ About?

Image via A24

Based on the stage play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter (who adapted his own work for the screenplay), The Whale follows the 600 pound English online college professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) as he reflects on his life’s work within his secluded apartment. Charlie has virtually cut himself off from any and all social interactions; he doesn’t even leave his apartment to speak with the food delivery boy, and he shields his face when talking to his students during their online class sessions. Charlie’s one spark of hope is getting to connect, and perhaps make peace with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie has been estranged since her parents’ divorce, as Charlie left Ellie’s mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), to pursue a relationship with his younger male student.

RELATED: ‘The Whale’ Review: May the “Brenaissance” Continue Beyond Darren Aronofsky’s Film

Aronofsky’s intent is clear; Charlie is shamed for being obese, for being gay, and for being optimistic, and the film does nothing but place him in uncomfortable moments where he’s humiliated and embarrassed. It would be one thing if these moments felt like Aronofsky was hinting at something greater, but the vague idea that Charlie retains his hope in people isn’t really affected by any of the specific experiences he has in the film. The film can’t help but revel in Charlie’s trauma, and his unflinching optimism raises questions as to what the point of making his life so miserable really is. While the performances of The Whale are certainly deserving of praise, Aronofsky doesn’t seem to be interested in using them for anything other than misery.

‘The Whale’ Was Controversial From the Beginning

Image via A24

The Whale has been controversial from the beginning due to concerns that it would be fatphobic. Critics described the use of a prosthetic suit instead of casting an obese actor as “surface level empathy” that’s intended to shock the audience by showing a well-known actor like you’ve never seen him before. There’s an inherent shock value to seeing Fraser wearing the extensive makeup, something that became particularly evident due to A24’s vague marketing campaign that only barely released footage for trailers in the weeks leading up to its release. While a film can’t be blamed for the effects of its marketing campaign, there’s a “you have to see it to believe it” type of message that surrounded the release of The Whale, and unfortunately Aronofsky conforms to that.

What’s odd is that in the past, Aronofsky has shown more delicacy in slowly introducing his characters’ personal issues to the audience. In The Wrestler, we are initially charmed by Robin Ramzinsk’s (Mickey Rourke) wrestling persona before we realize just how irresponsible and unapologetic he is; similarly, we’re initially impressed by Thomas Creo’s (Hugh Jackman) incredible research efforts in The Fountain before it becomes clear that he’s trying to save his wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz), from a terminal illness. However, when Charlie is introduced in The Whale, there’s an aura of secrecy around him that’s meant to intrigue us; it’s as if Aronofsky is encouraging us to ignore what Charlie is actually saying in order to catch a glimpse of his body in full.

‘The Whale’s Casting Is Manipulative

Image via A24

There’s also the complexity surrounding casting someone like Brendan Fraser in the first place. Aronofsky understands the cultural significance of the stars he selects for his projects, which allows him to make nuanced observations. Rourke had obviously been in a career slump before The Wrestler, so seeing him take on the role of a past-his-prime performer was inspiring; Natalie Portman is an actress who has been subjected to sexist news coverage for nearly her entire career, so casting her in Black Swan as woman struggling to fit a certain body image gave the character a personal touch.

Brendan Fraser has always had the reputation of being a “nice guy” who had been lampooned and taken advantage of; revelations about his personal struggles have made him even more empathetic. While it’s great to see Fraser in a comeback role, casting him as another “nice guy” who is insulted, mocked, and abused feels like a manipulative and cruel technique to evoke sympathy. While Charlie’s optimism should be inspiring, it simply makes the film more difficult to watch as he’s subjected to fear from his pizza delivery boy, cruel social media posts by his daughter, and shocks of horror by his students when they finally see who has been on the other side of their laptop screen.

‘The Whale’ Leans into Spectacle Over Substance
In response to the growing criticism about the use of prosthetics, Aronofsky seemed to ignore the controversy all together by saying that it “made no sense.” This suggests that either he doesn’t care about those that took offense to his portrayal, or is so ignorant of the issues that the film is portraying that he should have never approached them from the beginning. We see just how out-of-touch Aronofsky is during a critical sequence towards the ending where Charlie begins binge eating everything he can find in his fridge; it’s a tonally miscalculated scene that looks at Charlie’s actions with contempt. Instead of focusing on the heartbreak that this is how Charlie chooses to punish himself, the film is showing his eating as the true “horror.”

There is a great idea behind The Whale, and none of the actors are at fault for trying to bring this story to life with the utmost sincerity. Unfortunately, sincerity will only get performances so far if the filmmaker isn’t interested in anything more profound. There’s nothing wrong with making a depressing film, but unfortunately there are no insights to be found in the bad vibes that The Whale leaves us with.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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