Review by Sean Boelman
One of the buzziest titles on the fall festival circuit this year is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which is being touted as a return to the spotlight for Brendan Fraser. While it’s undoubtedly nice to see Fraser getting the praise he has long deserved, it would have been better to see it for a film that isn’t as disturbingly hurtful as this.
The movie follows a morbidly obese and reclusive English teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter in one last bid at redemption. It’s clearly trying to be an intelligent tear-jerker, and while it will con uncanny audiences with its emotional manipulation, those who are able to see its disgusting soul will be unimpressed.
To address the fact that so many critics won’t (or are unable to) acknowledge, yes, the film is incredibly toxic to people who are overweight. Without going into too much detail, the central thesis of the movie is that the protagonist is a bad person for “letting himself go” and that he needs a redemption arc. If that isn’t offensively fatphobic, I don’t know what is.
However, that isn’t where the offensiveness stops. The film also suffers from some serious pocketed homophobia. Although this may not have been the intention, the fact that the movie opens with him almost dying from watching gay porn and then proceeds to shame him for leaving his family because he was gay isn’t the type of message we need to be promoting.
That being said, even though the film does a horrendous job of exploring those themes, it is solid as a criticism of religion. Granted, religion is a theme that Aronofsky has explored in most, if not all, of his movies, so it is ground that he is much more familiar with covering. Even so, the film’s indictments of organized religion are shallow at best.
Brendan Fraser’s performance in the movie has gotten an enormous amount of praise on the festival circuit, and while he admittedly does a better job than anyone else possibly could have in the role, it is written so toxically that it’s hard to turn a blind eye. Everything feels so exaggerated, and while there is a sliver of authenticity thanks to Fraser’s connection to the material, it still feels somewhat artificial.
Hong Chau’s supporting performance is quite good, as is Ty Simpkins’s, but Sadie Sink is absolutely unbearable in her role. Granted, the character that Sink is playing is meant to be rather unlikable, but the way she approaches the role is so over-the-top that any of the insults she slews have no effect.
There are a few elements of The Whale that are worthy of praise, but for the most part, it’s a toxic, fatphobic, homophobic mess. Granted, general audiences probably won’t recognize how horrible the film’s message is, and as a result, they won’t be as bothered.
The Whale screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.