‘The Whale’ Misses the Mark

Darren Aronofsky has a penchant for troubled bodies: the agonizing addicts of Requiem for a Dreamthe tension and the crack of Black Swanthe troubled pregnancy of Mother! And now there is The Whalea dismal drama camera presented on Sunday at the Venice Film Festival. Adapted from the play by Samuel D. Hunter of 2012, The Whale it is the story of a morbidly man obeseCharlie (Brendan Fraser), who lives what could be his last days, while his heart falters and his mind is lost in regret.

It’s a tough story that pretty much takes place in one room. Which doesn’t give Aronofsky much room for his usual visual panache. Almost all of the energy of The Whale it is then channeled into the representation of Charlie’s body, a prosthesis that Fraser wears like a cross on his shoulder. The film seems to insist that it is a mighty act of becoming, and also of empathy. But what is expressed is instead a kind of brazen horror, the portrait of a man facing a catastrophic event ruin so that we viewers can tap into our noblest and higher minds and see the worthy human being under the scary aspect.

It doesn’t seem like a form of empathy at all. I trust that the intention was good, both on the part of Aronofsky and Fraser, but their execution is turgid and ghostly. Almost every time Charlie eats a bite, Aronofsky plays the thunderous soundtrack of Rob Simonsen, with simple and sinister arcs that indicate that something very, very bad and scary is happening. What might have been a somber and carefully thought-out study of a lonely man grappling with his past becomes a pose.

Charlie lives alone in an apartment somewhere in Idaho. He is a recluse who makes his living by taking online writing classes, with the camera off to protect himself from his students. There is at least one caring friend in his life, Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who treats Charlie’s health with resigned concern. Charlie and Liz have a particularly close and painful bond which is revealed later in the film, when Charlie and Liz’s faded little life is interrupted by strangers.

One of these is an evangelical missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who breaks into Charlie’s world at an inopportune moment: Charlie has just finished masturbating to gay porn and the video is still playing on his laptop when he has a bout of pain in his chest. (Again, I see little empathy in the way this scene is framed and choreographed). Thomas, seeing this totem of misery, wants to save Charlie’s dying soul, a futile effort against a man he feels he has overcome redemption – spiritually, morally, physically.

But maybe Charlie can at least mend ties with his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), although the two have completely drifted apart since Charlie ditched his marriage (with Mary, played by Samantha Morton) to follow a great romance with a male student. That man, Alan, is now dead, which has become the main tragedy in Charlie’s life, in addition to his broken relationship with Ellie. As her end looms, Charlie desperately, and sadly, tries to reestablish a bond with Ellie, offering to fix her financially for the future.

Aronofsky can’t find a way to make all these characters’ entrances and exits cinematic. He and Hunter, an often exceptional playwright, don’t want to abandon the tricks and forms that work in theater, but which are jarring and too presentative on the camera. There is a certain naturalism in the opening stages of the film, a conversation that sounds familiar and believable. But the film makes its way into one self-conscious foam, building and building until people just state each other’s motives aloud. With that overheated soundtrackit almost feels like Aronofsky is doing a parody of hyper-serious autumn dramas, complete with physical transformation at the center.

He cheers for the success of Fraser, despite the rudeness of the transformation. For decades now he has been a nice presence on the screen, able to wink affably at the self-awareness and seriousness of the past. But here it is lost, overwhelmed with a task that seems almost designed to be intensely scrutinized and analyzed. When we hear some of the innate sweetness that has always animated Fraser’s work, radiating through all these layers of effort, it’s usually because he’s acting alongside Chau, whose performance is the only thoughtfully calibrated thing. in the movie. Fraser and his other co-stars only threaten to destroy the delicate space that Chau creates and then must rebuild, scene after scene, throughout the film.

The Whale wants to be a poignant reflection on sense of guilton the sexualityon the religionon remorse. In reality, however, we only know this because the film shouts it at us. Charlie, Ellie and Mary are more avatar of ideas than real characters, which seems to fit perfectly with Aronofsky’s view of history. A coldness leaking from behind the camera, one calculating look that transforms The Whale in a static (albeit extraordinarily loud) diorama of ache. Here’s Charlie, moaning and pleading behind a pane of glass to make us sigh, sulk and gape, before moving on to the next fleeting curiosity.

‘The Whale’ Misses the Mark