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.