By Marc S. Sanders
I still have a lot of catching up to do, but arguably the best performance by any actor in 2022 comes from Brendan Fraser in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, an adaptation of the stage play written by Samuel D. Hunter.
Fraser plays Charlie, an intelligent online writing professor. His course is done online as he has become an enormously overweight recluse, following the loss of his boyfriend, circumstances to be revealed over the course of the film. Charlie is so obese that he can barely walk, and he confines himself to the left side of his sofa with the television in front of him and his laptop nearby to conduct his courses or to pleasure himself with gay pornography. He has a walker to get himself on to his feet and carry his bulk, but showering is not easy. Even picking a key up off the floor is an impossibility.
He receives visits from his only friend, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau). When she arrives on Monday, she discovers that his blood pressure is indicative of congestive heart failure and urges him to go to the hospital. He insists he can not afford the bills and has no insurance. He also receives unwelcome visits from a young man named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) spreading the word of God with brochures from the local church. Lastly, the visits Charlie treasures the most are from his cruel and mean-spirited daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who takes no reservations with berating Charlie as a deadbeat dad and only comes to him because she practically demands he write her essays to avoid dropping out of school. She also rudely takes pictures of Charlie at any given moment. Each time she raises her cell phone for a click, it feels like she is giving her father the harshest middle finger imaginable.
Much like an earlier film, known as The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky explores what comes after the main character has tormented himself into a destiny difficult to escape or be rescued from. Aronofsky is frank about offering up helpless souls only now living with everyday ongoing pain both physically and, as we discover, more importantly, mentally. Highlights of Charlie’s day are when the pizza is delivered and he shouts through the door that the money is in mailbox. The delivery guy knows the routine all too well by now and the best he can offer is to ask if Charlie is okay while never seeing his grotesque appearance.
Aronofsky doesn’t offer much variety on the surface. The film takes place entirely in Charlie’s apartment. Sometimes we go down the hallway and see another room or we get a conversation between Liz and Thomas on the front porch. The cast only boasts seven actors. Yet, Hunter’s screenplay is not limited to what Charlie is having to endure. There is also an unexpected backstory to Thomas and there’s more to uncover with Liz and Ellie. The pizza delivery guy, who we never see, even discovers something. One particular essay about Moby Dick that Charlie desperately urges Thomas to read out loud early on has a surprising significance that I didn’t see coming.
Still, the film belongs almost entirely to Brendan Fraser and how he enhances the performances of his cast mates, particularly Sadie Sink. Their scenes are so well performed. She is an outstanding young actor working on a manic level. I imagine Sadie Sink had to come down from the hyper activeness of her scenes. She is uncompromisingly mean. When the director yells, there is no way she could just turn that characterization off. I bet she walked away from the set to catch her breath. Opposite her, Fraser’s character has no choice but to be more restrained. Physically, it is hard for him to breathe and therefore speak at times at a high octave. He cannot stand up very well and rush to embrace his daughter even if he wanted to try. She is mean enough to challenge him though. The outcome of that moment will have you hate her character for sure. Yet, you don’t forget she’s a kid and her current state is a product of something else, perhaps from Charlie’s past misgivings.
Timewise, they are also on uneven playing fields. Hunter’s script counts down the days as the top of some scenes depict it as Monday and then Tuesday and so on. Charlie is running out of time and has a lot of hanging threads to tie off. Ellie has an entire life ahead of her to name call and scream at him and hurt him, but Charlie cannot afford to upset someone and work on apologies later. The best he can take advantage of right now is to appeal for all the wrongs he’s committed or been accused of. Most importantly, can he fix his relationship with his daughter?
Liz is a health care professional by trade and knows what is best for Charlie, but likely also knows it’s too late and rather hopeless, considering his current condition. So, it only makes sense to surrender to his needs by bringing him meatball subs and barbecue ribs. What she is determined to do is to keep his daughter and ex-wife away from him. It’s a conflict that Charlie has no choice but to allow.
Thomas is that last new person to ever enter Charlie’s life. Yet, what is his gospel of God and salvation going to do for Charlie now? Charlie can’t keep this kid from coming over, but is he really going to listen and take any of it seriously?
Brendan Fraser’s performance is so limited to the setting of the film and the physical restraint of being a large man with no flexibility. However, he provides so much in the pain his character has suffered long before the current week captured on screen. It’s an astonishing achievement in acting. Within the bulbous head depicted in so many closeups are tired eyes that have gone through so much like toiling with leaving a marriage in exchange for a homosexual relationship, and weakening a connection with his child.
Beyond the enormous weight he lives with, Charlie also lives with an unhealthy food addiction. Just ahead of the last act of the film, Aronofsky is relentless in showing how Charlie responds to personal suffering, not physical, by drowning himself in enormous amounts of sloppy and messy food as Fraser guzzles everything into his mouth. Charlie suffers from so much more than just being morbidly obese. He could live with that. It’s other moments and people and losses in his life that are hard to continue to live with. The difficulty of those things is cursed upon by Charlie with uncontrollable amounts of food. Some people who suffer with difficult matters might hide in bed all day or binge watch television for an entire week. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. Charlie binges on food. He doesn’t love his food. He only uses it to drown out his pains.
I imagine it’s hard to learn about people like Charlie who are held down by the challenge of extreme obesity. They have become so physically large that they literally can not get up from their sofa without help and therefore never leave their homes. Because they never go outside, we are unaware of people like this. I once had a neighbor that I never, ever saw. I could hear their TV in the apartment next door but I never saw them. How is that possible? Why is it that they never revealed themselves? There’s a story there. Maybe a terrible or uncontrollable dilemma. Darren Aronofsky, Samuel D. Hunter and Brendan Fraser offer a glimpse into what goes on behind this closed door. It’s heartbreaking.
Maybe it is so tragic because of why Charlie is shown within his confines by Aronofsky, written within the circumstances that Hunter offers and most importantly demonstrated by Fraser as a man ready for his life to end. If only he can resolve a final digression with his teenage daughter suffering from a pain of anger likely instigated by him.
Again, Brendan Fraser’s performance is the best one I have seen this year, and with no doubt in my mind, he should absolutely win the Oscar. This could go down as the best accomplishment is his colorful career.