The Cruel Spectacle of ‘The Whale’

“The Whale,” Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, is one you hope, desperately, will be seen by an audience that has the necessary cultural literacy, the empathy, to watch the story and recognize that the on-screen portrayal of fatness bears little resemblance to the lived experiences of fat people. It is a gratuitous, self-aggrandizing fiction at best.

The film should ask us to see Charlie, the protagonist played by Brendan Fraser, as a person, to understand his grief and mourn with him, to hope for him to pull his life together. But that’s not how the movie was filmed. Most audiences will see the spectacle of a 600-pound man unwilling to care for himself, grieving the loss of his partner who died by suicide, eager to die himself, and using food as the means to that end. The disdain the filmmakers seem to have for their protagonist is constant, inescapable. It’s infuriating — to have all this on-screen talent and all these award-winning creators behind the camera, working to make an inhumane film about a very human being. What, exactly, is the point of that?

For most of its two-hour run time, “The Whale” is emotionally devastating. Charlie’s grief and inability to find the will to live is utterly crushing. The material circumstances of his life — teaching writing online, always hiding from his students by keeping his camera off, enduring the understandable fury of his teenage daughter who simply wants to know why he abandoned her, shirking the concern of his best friend, who has already lost one beloved brother and can hardly bear to lose her last connection to him — is overwhelming and relentless, manipulative and pitiable. I suppose that’s the point of this particular adaptation from Sam Hunter’s play of the same name.

“The Whale” is assiduous about conveying its gravitas and self-importance. There is the austere title card and the dark and claustrophobic setting of a dank apartment; the formidable cast emotes solemnly but energetically. I didn’t know much about the film, but I did know it was about a fat man seeking some kind of redemption and that it starred Mr. Fraser, one of my favorite actors. Even though he wore a fat suit for the role, a Hollywood practice I find abhorrent, I was willing to give the movie a chance because he has earned plenty of my good will.

Members of the small cast acquit themselves well enough with the material they’re given. Charlie is isolated and is reckoning with his mistakes as he dies of heart failure. This is not a subtle film. In his final days, he tries to reconcile with his estranged, irreverent daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). He is cared for by his best friend and deceased partner’s sister Liz (Hong Chau), and the monotony of his life is interrupted by Thomas (Ty Simpkins) a misguided missionary who awkwardly inserts himself into Charlie’s last days.

Mr. Fraser brings pathos to this role, though I wish he was given better material, more worthy of his talent. His performance makes him a strong contender for all the major awards, and that’s a shame, not because he doesn’t deserve them, but because what’s also being rewarded is such a demeaning portrayal of a fat man. We’ll hear about how brave Mr. Fraser is for taking on a role like this, for wearing a fat suit, for being willing to embody so many people’s worst fears. Hollywood loves to reward actors who dare to take on roles that require them to abandon the good looks that enabled their careers.

At points, I was reminded of “Leaving Las Vegas” and how Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is afforded a kind of dignity as he drinks himself to death. He is a part of the world even as he forces his way out of it. Charlie is not granted any such thing. “The Whale” claims to have been told with care and grace, but it is just as exploitative as any episode of TLC’s “My 600-lb Life.”

In the opening scene, it isn’t quite clear what is happening, until everything comes into focus: Charlie is masturbating to porn, drenched in sweat, out of breath. It’s unclear what will happen first — orgasm or death. The problem isn’t that Charlie looks the way he does or struggles in his body. The problem is that the creators cannot hide their contempt anytime Charlie tries to satisfy an all too human urge.

So many other creative choices feel unnecessary. In one scene, Charlie, in a fit of emotional pain, gorges himself on any food he can find, starting with a greasy pizza. Before long, his face is slicked with grease, and he has thrown open his refrigerator desperate for anything to fill the yawning void of hurt from which he cannot escape. There is another scene in which he eats a bucket of fried chicken. And then there is his wardrobe — tent-like clothing, threadbare, perpetually soaked in sweat. The rolls of his stomach spilling over his thighs. The walker he cannot move without, always by his side as he heaves himself up each time he needs to change locations. The way “The Whale” is told reflects such a profound and pathetic dearth of imagination. At several points, both my wife and I wanted to walk out of the screening, but we didn’t want to seem rude or oversensitive.

Stories have an impact. They contribute to perception. And how this film deals with Charlie’s fatness is egregious: exploitative and at times, cruel. I am not sure if it is discomfort that makes me feel this way, or if the depiction of Charlie hit too close to home. I’m not able to create any kind of intellectual distance, as is my right. We bring who we are to the art we consume.

I cried during most of the film, and I heard others crying too, though I suspect we were all crying for different reasons. It was painful to bear witness to Charlie’s demise, to how he was portrayed, to how utterly careless the writing and direction were. It was crystal clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aronofsky considered fatness to be the ultimate human failure, something despicable, to be avoided at all costs.

In a Q. and A. after the screening, the director, Mr. Aronofsky, said proudly that Charlie’s story was told with empathy. He seemed to think he was being sincere, but I was bewildered because an empathetic portrayal isn’t at all what was conveyed onscreen. As I looked around the audience, I was struck by the fact that there were only four or so fat people in the audience and none on the stage.

“The Whale”exemplifies the blurry line between creative license and cultural harm. Creators are free to tell the stories they want, in the ways they want. But there are consequences. A movie like this will only reinforce the dehumanizing ways in which many people understand fatness.

In most circumstances, eliciting such a visceral reaction to a movie would be a sign of good filmmaking. Productive things can happen in spaces of profound discomfort. But there is a difference between discomfort and devastation.

“The Whale,” in the end, isn’t the serious film it so desperately wants to be. It’s a carnival sideshow. Come look at the freak, the movie beckons.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Back to top button