Review: The Whale

Score: B

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins

Running Time: 117 min

Rated: R

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale has been seen as many things. Brendan Fraser’s return to the screen. A fatphobic spectacle. A heart-wrenching adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play. In a time where social media wants to see everything in black and white, The Whale can be confounding in its complexity. While it delivers a powerhouse performance from Fraser, I ultimately couldn’t shake my discomfort with its portrayal of its protagonist in a media landscape that already has so few plus-size characters.

Fraser plays Charlie, a 600 lb man living alone, overeating his way toward heart failure. Given a week to live by his nurse friend, Liz (Hong Chau), he scrambles to reconcile with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who still hates him for leaving her and her mother ten years prior. Camera zoom-outs and a fat suit help illustrate Charlie’s immense size, only able to stand and walk with the aid of a walker through his claustrophobic apartment. Fraser is heartbreaking as Charlie, a man whose mental health took a steep downturn when his beloved partner killed himself. It’s clear his overeating and refusal to go to the hospital is his way of slowly doing the same thing. We spend almost two hours with Charlie as he continually cycles through shame, guilt, grief, frustration, and sadness, handled with subtlety and care by Fraser. 

While Charlie’s internal emotional journey in The Whale is both frustrating and heartbreaking, it’s those around him, and their reaction to his physical body, that left me feeling uncomfortable. Continually sweating, unable to move around, balding, and eating so fast with grease all over his face, it’s clear that the audience is supposed to find Charlie’s body disgusting. So much of the film seems to center on his extreme obesity as a moral failure. In ways, it feels akin to a circus ringmaster trotting a prized act. His claustrophobic apartment starts to feel like a cage, with external visitors like his daughter and friends as spectators who are unable to see the human being in front of them. 

Charlie’s obesity is an extreme example. Any human weighing 600 lbs is clearly going to suffer health issues. But with so few plus-size portrayals on screen, The Whale seems all too happy to contribute one more example of “fat people are morally bad” to the lexicon. While I was heartbroken for Charlie’s plight, I was even more heartbroken for the billions of potential audience members perhaps seeing themselves and remembering flippant remarks or feeling validated that their worst fears — that they are seen as somehow “inhuman” are true. 

I see how Charlie’s story of grief, self-harm, and the inability to process such hurt is worth telling. But so much of the film seems to dehumanize him in a way that feels downright harmful at a time when so many are willing to dehumanize others for trivial reasons. While I commend Fraser’s performance, and I found Charlie’s emotional journey interesting, it’s a complicated film that perhaps relies too much on its audience to infer its complexities and too easily slips into its own misguided black-and-white morality. While Aronofsky doesn’t strike me as someone who would take these critiques as “learning moments”, here’s hoping we see more plus-size portrayals as heroes, villains, and everything in between in the future.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.