From his opening moments in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale—depicting the character Charlie engaging in an act of desperate loneliness on his couch—The Whale taunts us, in a way: daring us not to look away.
But we keep looking. And Fraser draws us into a performance that even his best past work only hinted at. His Charlie comes through in every sweaty pore, every sad arch of his brows, buried deep in fat makeup.
Filmed from a play, The Whale plays like one: there’s a room, people enter and leave the room, and at the center is a 400-pound man who can’t stop killing himself by eating. Charlie maintains his existence by teaching college students English composition online (he keeps his own camera off), and it’s a sad life of delivered pizzas and frequent visits from his caregiver Liz (Hong Chau), who declares him well down the path towards congestive heart failure; all this elicits from Charlie is a series of “I’m sorry”s, which only further infuriate Liz.
Until teenage Ellie (Sadie Sink) shows up, and you realize Charlie is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Add to this a troubled former New Life member (Ty Simpkins) peddling religious pamphlets, and an ex-wife (Samantha Morton), all of whom, in their own way, channel their own disillusion with life and judgments on humanity through the prism of Charlie’s fat.
Fraser draws us into a performance that even his best past work only hinted at. His Charlie comes through in every sweaty pore, every sad arch of his brows, buried deep in fat makeup.
Aronofsky has now made a trilogy of films about people desperately trying to escape the shackles of the physical world—the shackles of the flesh—in order to experience some kind of apotheosis. There was Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman’s torturous self-abnegation leads to a swooning death; Mickey Rourke’s final plunge into a blissful, white-light abyss in The Wrestler; and now The Whale.
TBA Studios, which continues its streak of showing arthouse films that are somehow connected with Filipinos (last year’s Triangle of Sadness with Dolly De Leon, Nocebo with Chai Fonacier), now distributes The Whale, shot by Aronofsky’s longstanding cinematographer, Filipino-American Matthew Libatique, in muted tones that capture the glistening flesh of Fraser’s face as it disappears into his body.
Is Charlie too good here? Are we being set up? There is much made in the script of Melville, his lonely, homoerotic existence, his novel Moby-Dick and “the whiteness of the whale.” The sight of Charlie slowly wading his walker across the room is perhaps meant as a physical manifestation. But what he is after, after all, is peace.
It’s hard to imagine some films existing (The Godfather, Leaving Las Vegas) without the utter, mesmerizing empathy and commitment of the lead performance. The Whale is one of them. Without Fraser, it might all dissolve into blubber, without the blubbering.
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The Whale, distributed by TBA Studios, opens Feb. 22.