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The Whale stuffs all of Darren Aronofsky’s worst songs into a fat suit

This review of The whale was originally published after its premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated and republished for the film’s theatrical release.

A24 The whale he drops all the worst Darren Aronofsky tendencies in a fat suit. It is an exercise in abjection in the manner of the devious Aronofsky. Requiem for a Dreambut focuses on an even more vulnerable target than Requiemaddicts. He’s also full of your favorite Biblical smugness. Mother!, noahY The fountainbut centered around a Christ figure whose masochistic superpower is to absorb the cruelty of everyone around him and safely store it within his massive structure.

To be fair, some people enjoy this kind of misery. But these viewers are also warned that not only is this film hard to take and likely to be actively damaging to some audiences, it is also a self-serving reinforcement of the status quo, which is one of the most boring things that can be. a movie.

For a film that, in the most generous reading possible, encourages viewers to consider that there is perhaps a painful backstory behind the bodies they find “disgusting” (the movie word), The whale seems to have little interest in the point of view of its protagonist, Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie is a middle-aged divorcee living in a small apartment somewhere in Idaho, where he teaches online English composition classes. Charlie never turns on his camera during lectures, because he’s fat, really fat, around 600 pounds. Charlie has trouble getting around without a walker, and has adaptive devices like grab sticks hidden in his house.

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If an alien landed on Earth and wondered if the human species would find its larger members attractive or repellent, The whale would clearly communicate the answer. Aronofsky turns up the foley audio every time Charlie is eating, to emphasize the wet sound of smacking lips. He plays ominous music in these sequences, so we know Charlie is up to something. really bad. Fraser’s neck and upper lip are constantly beaded with sweat, and his shirt is dirty and covered in crumbs. At one point, she removes her shirt and slowly makes her way to her bed, drooping rolls of prosthetic fat dangling from her body as she hunches into the camera like the rugged beast she is of hers. In case viewers still don’t get that they’re supposed to find it disgusting, she recites an essay on moby dick and how a whale is “a poor big animal” without feelings.

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And that’s just what Aronofsky communicates about him through the direction of the film. the story in The whaleThe first half of is a gauntlet of humiliation, beginning with Charlie being approached by an evangelical missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) while he’s having a heart attack, still playing gay porn on his laptop due to a pathetic masturbation attempt. . Charlie’s nurse and only friend, Liz (Hong Chau), is mostly nice to him, though she helps him out with dumpling sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken. Thomas is too, although he is less interested in Charlie as a person than as a soul to be saved. But Charlie’s 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), openly despises him and says the cruelest things she can think of to punish Charlie for leaving her and her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), when Ellie was Eight years.

Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (adapting their own play) don’t reveal the condescending point of all this until the second half of the film: Charlie is a saint, a Christ figure, the fat man the world loved so much. that he let the people in his life treat him like a complete dog of shit to absolve them of his hate, and him of his sins. Meanwhile, a subplot involving Thomas’ past life in Iowa makes the bizarre claim that people are actually trying to help when they treat others unpleasantly, which can only be true if the target of that hostility is he does not know what is good for them. Then what is? Does a person have to turn the other cheek or be cruel to be kind? It depends if they are fat, it seems. Charlie never comments on other characters’ smoking and drinking, but they do comment on his weight.

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Perhaps the most frustrating of The whale it is how close it is to some kind of perception. Aronofsky and Hunter just needed to show some empathy and curiosity for people of Charlie’s size, rather than paternalistically guessing at Charlie’s motivations. The main culprit here is a plot point where Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, even though his blood pressure is dangerously high and he shows symptoms of congestive heart failure. At first, he lies to Liz that she doesn’t have the money to pay the huge medical bills he would rack up as an uninsured patient. It then emerges that Charlie has over $100,000 stashed away in savings.

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Charlie's 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) is half dwarfed by a door, looking sad, in The Whale.

Photo: Niko Tavernise/A24

The whale he understands this as a combination of selflessness (he hopes to give that money to Ellie after she dies) and suicidal tendencies. What gives away Aronofsky and Hunter’s projection of Charlie’s motivations is that extensive studies have shown why obese patients avoid medical treatment, and it has nothing to do with the self-sacrificing messiah complex bullshit. Doctors are just cruel to fat people, and are disproportionately likely to dismiss, demote, and misdiagnose them.

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The other frustrating thing is that Brendan Fraser is actually a major asset in the lead role. He plays Charlie as a smart, funny, and thoughtful man who loves language and creativity, and refuses to let the tragic circumstances of his life make him a cynic. He sees the best in everyone, even Ellie, whose insults he counters with affirmation and support. (She’s hurting, you see.) Fraser’s eyes are kind, and his brows are knitted with sadness and concern.

But if there’s any anger behind those eyes, we don’t see it. If Charlie just tells people what he wants to hear in hopes of minimizing abuse of him, that doesn’t translate. The film seems satisfied with his superficial assertions that he’s fine and happy and a naturally positive guy, again revealing his lack of interest in Charlie’s inner emotional life, despite Fraser’s sensitive attempt to find a partner. man inside symbol.

Aronofsky and his team are more interested in their own intelligence. Some of the spikes thrown around Charlie’s apartment are pretty funny. (The film openly displays its theatrical roots: the entire story takes place within the confines of Charlie’s apartment and front porch.) Chau, in particular, brings a prickly warmth to her role as Liz, the kind of friend whose love language is those whose purpose in life is as a fierce advocate. Liz is suffering too, of course; everyone is here But while everyone is suffering, Charlie has to suffer more for it.

If you see The whale As a fable, its moral is that it is the responsibility of the abused to love and forgive their abusers. The movie thinks it’s saying, “You don’t understand; he is fat because he is suffering ”. But he ends by saying, “You don’t understand; we have to be cruel to fat people, because us They are suffering.” Aronofsky and Hunter’s biblical metaphor aside, fat people did not volunteer to serve as repositories of society’s anger and scorn. No one agrees to be bullied to make the bully feel better about themselves. This is a self-serving lie that bullies tell themselves, this is an externally imposed martyrdom that negates the goal of the exercise.

In The whale, Aronofsky posits his sadism as a thought experiment, challenging viewers to find the humanity buried beneath Charlie’s thick layers of fat. That’s not as benign a premise as he seems to think it is. It proceeds from the assumption that a 600-pound man is inherently unpleasant. It’s like walking up to a stranger on the street and saying, “You’re an abomination, but I love you anyway,” in keeping with the strong tension of self-satisfied Christianity that the film aims to criticize. Audience members walk away proud of themselves because they shed a few tears over this disgusting whale, without gaining a new insight into what it’s really like to be that whale. That is not empathy. That’s pity, buried under a thick, suffocating layer of contempt.

The whale it is now playing in theaters.

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