Brendan Fraser makes his comeback with a powerful leading performance in an affecting film. Read on for my review of The Whale.
Charlie (Fraser) is a severely obese man whose health problems ensure he’ll die within a week. But he refuses treatment because he lacks insurance coverage. So Charlie spends his final days making amends with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink).
I must come out the gate with this: Brendan Fraser’s performance in The Whale is the best I’ve seen from him, and the best I’ve seen this year. He channels those qualities which came to make us love him: a sense of humour, relatability, and humility, plus a new darkness underneath. Fraser’s performance is layered. For Charlie is a man who suffers from unimaginable pain, who suppresses hardship with food and positive words.
Yet that pain claws its way to the surface throughout The Whale. And Charlie’s barriers begin to break. And Fraser conveys every moment of regret, anguish, and self-pity with remarkable skill: for he rides a fine line which portrays his character as a three dimensional person. Charlie is a man we can like for his patience and big heart, yet gall us by his deceits and refusal to help himself.
The Whale‘s handing of Charlie’s obesity is treated as a complex medical issue. His excessive fat comes from overeating, yes, but is ultimately a symptom of poor mental health. The mind hurts the body, and the body eventually fails under the strain.
Though The Whale sends mixed messages here. Because the film acknowledges the mental and physical toll to Charlie, but it’s implied that he was never pushed to seek help before his problems got out of hand. That wouldn’t bug me so much if his best friend/ caretaker wasn’t a nurse. And it’s not as if she tries hard to prevent Charlie’s poor decisions. She voices half-hearted concerns, then enables him at every turn.
Hong Chau gives The Whale‘s second-best performance, as Charlie’s friend, Liz. I admire how intimidating she comes across with mere glares. She made me anxious just watching her. I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of those eyes…
Liz gets a fascinating ethical dilemma in The Whale: sit by and watch her friend slowly kill himself, or push him to live against his will. She can’t control Charlie, though his life is in her hands.
Sadie Sink is on fire this year, as both the highlight of Stranger Things 4 and for her role in The Whale. Though I actively disliked her character (Ellie) for most of the film. That was likely the story’s intention, but Ellie’s attitude and actions made me root against her and Charlie’s reconciliation. I thought, “Yeah, Charlie, I know you’re guilty about Ellie’s childhood, but she isn’t worth this abuse. Let her go.”
But Ellie, like everyone else in The Whale, contains hidden depths which kept her character from veering into irredeemable territory. She’s got spurts of vulnerability which make her more palatable, and provoke sympathy. Ellie is a dick– but you at least understand why. And Sadie Sink’s performance complexly demonstrates that Ellie herself is an actress who puts up a front to the world.
The Whale impressively features a tiny, yet effective cast. There’s maybe 5 characters in this film, and they’re all three dimensional people. Each of their soul’s depths is plumbed throughout the story.
The dialogue often feels like characters just speak their subtext. But it was serviceable, raw, and emotional. The actors’ delivery of the lines was far more impressive than the lines themselves.
And said delivery is “cringey” at the right parts. You won’t WANT to watch some of the conversations these characters have. You’ll feel like you’re not meant to be a part of their struggles. But you’ll watch anyway– and you’ll enjoy how uncomfortable you feel, even though you tell yourself you don’t. ‘Cause that’s how these kinds of movies hook you in.
You wouldn’t think a film like The Whale would offer any mystery, but you’d be wrong. This screenplay refuses to spell everything out up front. Characters hold some cards close to their chests until such time as they must reveal them. And this plotting technique effectively kept my investment by giving me questions I wished answered.
What fell flat for me, however, were a few of The Whale‘s twists. I was mostly ambivalent about the entire “New Life Church” plotline. None of those reveals mattered to me.
The Whale‘s subject matter is complex, and morally gray, and asks difficult questions of its audience: Should we feel badly for people who mostly cause their own problems? Should we go out of our way to help those people, even if it’ll hurt us? The Whale seems to answer both with a “yes”, though it doesn’t pretend like either decision is easy. Still, the film preaches value in sympathy and empathy. And I certainly came out of this thing feeling more empathetic (in general).
The Whale also acts as an example of what positivity through hardship can accomplish. The world is a cruel place, and people can be brutally mean to even their loved ones. The Whale features a cast of depressed, self-righteous characters who hate their lives. But Charlie’s honest positivity (when he’s arguably in the worst situation) inspires glimmers of hope in both his friends and in us.
What bothers me, however, is the implication that these characters are justified in being pricks. They had bad things happen to them, so that gives them some kind of pass in spreading their misery to others. And some bad times in life are reason enough for them to stop working on themselves. It’s somewhat realistic for people to behave this way. I just dislike that The Whale lets the characters get away with their behaviours without real consequences.
Onto some filmmaking stuff now: Charlie’s apartment is, impressively, The Whale‘s only setting. Set designers effectively made the place feel lived-in and abused. But not all rooms are lived-in equal (like real dwellings). Certain areas, like Charlie’s living room and bedroom are grimy messes, while his guest room is pristine. Food waste, books, and papers litter the place– offering visual insight into Charlie’s priorities (or lacktheirof, when it comes to cleaning).
I’m unsure if there was significance to the fact that it’s always raining outside Charlie’s apartment. My only answer is that the metaphorical Whale is surrounded by water like a literal one? But I figured this detail was worth a mention, ’cause it’s something weird I noticed.
I must give props to the makeup department. Holy hell, they did a great job! Those prosthetics are thoroughly convincing to the eye, and the effect never slips.
All this said: I disliked The Whale‘s near-comical ending. The moment is shot and performed with 100% seriousness, and had me absorbed… at first. But the final implication conjured a darkly humorous thought in my brain which shattered the moment and left me holding back laughter rather than tears. Of course I can’t tell you the thought here, ’cause that’d spoil it. But be warned if your mind works similarly to mine.
The Whale is still a beautifully made film. It’s a portrait of unencumbered, vulnerable emotion from start to finish. And if that makes you uncomfortable then good. Brendan Fraser will probably make you tear up a couple times. Relish in those emotions and appreciate his powerhouse performance!
The Whale sends some mixed messages, but is a Pretty Darn Good emotional experience.
IN-DEPTH ANALYSES OF THE ABOVE, AND MORE, ON THIS EPISODE OF CLOSE UP:
What’s Brendan Fraser’s best movie? What did you think of The Whale? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know.
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Till next time,