From: Silver Screen

REVIEW: ‘The Whale’ portrays a distressing but ultimately uplifting story enhanced by fantastic performances

REVIEW: ‘The Whale’ portrays a distressing but ultimately uplifting story enhanced by fantastic performances

Brendan Fraser as Christopher in “The Whale.”

Despite being a fantastic film, “The Whale” leaves the audience with no desire to watch it again anytime soon. It’s smartly written, fully utilizing a small and nuanced cast of characters. Yet it is also not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable, with a building sense of dread created by the film’s soundtrack and dark subject matter. Although it will certainly not be as controversial as director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, “Mother!,” the slow pacing and oppressive atmosphere of “The Whale” make the movie less approachable than the average popcorn flick.

Aronofsky crafts an intimate character study centered around Christopher (Brendan Fraser), a middle-aged writing professor who has been eating himself to death ever since his boyfriend died. Christopher is a complicated protagonist, displaying optimism and compassion for the people around him while simultaneously stewing in his own self-loathing. He is incapable of seeing his own redeeming qualities, even as he works hard to see the best in others, especially in his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie comes back into Christopher’s life after he abandoned her when she was eight, and much of the film centers on him trying to reconnect with her.

Ellie is perhaps the most fascinating character in the film. Though her actions and dialogue are almost cartoonishly cruel at times, Sink’s performance keeps the character grounded in reality. The best scenes explore the dichotomy between Ellie’s apathy towards the world and her father’s optimism. That conflict runs throughout the film from beginning to end and reaches a beautiful and moving conclusion by the time the credits roll.

One of the movie’s less successful creative elements is how similar it feels to a play. It is a difficult problem to avoid as writer Samuel D. Hunter adapted the screenplay from his play of the same name. But, the manner in which the side characters are constantly exiting and entering the single set feels too theatrical. This effect could have been mitigated by showing some glimpses of the characters outside of Christopher’s apartment. There were some benefits to this theatrical style though, particularly in emphasizing Christopher’s avoidance of sunlight and the outside.

From a technical standpoint, Aronofsky’s use of a 3:4 aspect ratio expertly cramps and confines the frame, reflecting Christopher’s situation. The lighting department does a great job ensuring the set always feels dimly lit, emphasizing the dreariness of Christopher’s surroundings, yet clearly highlights important elements like the actor’s faces. The sound department did a particularly impressive job ensuring every line of dialogue was perfectly comprehensible, a problem in some recent movies. The film included sound effects intentionally to provide a greater understanding of what was happening both on and off screen and impressively incorporated Rob Simonsen’s dread-inducing score into the film. 

“The Whale” is not for everyone, but those able to withstand the movie’s morbidity will find themselves rewarded with a meaningful and strangely inspiring piece of art.

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This story was edited by Spenser Hoover, Kylie Bill and Nina Heller. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis, Sophia Rocha and Stella Guzik.

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