Staff writer Rachel Suleymanov attended the New York premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s new film at Lincoln Center Tuesday night. 

Content warning: Briefly discusses topics that might be triggering to those who have struggled with disordered eating.

“There’s some Columbia film student here sitting in his seat,” quipped director Darren Aronofsky after relaying an anecdote about his editor, Andrew Weisblum, surrendering his ticket for the premiere of their new film. I was that Columbia film student—or at least one of them—who was lucky enough to nab a ticket to see the debut of The Whale. A24 invited Columbia film majors earlier in November to RSVP over email and wait in a line that wrapped around Lincoln Center. “YOUR RSVP DOES NOT GUARANTEE ADMISSION” was strategically placed in every invite. 

Aronofsky went on to welcome Samuel D. Hunter to the stage, whose play by the same name inspired the film. He thanked cast members, bringing out Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, and Brendan Fraser, who has seemingly emerged from respite with the fervent desire to remind us of his phenomenal genius. The crowd embraced Fraser with stentorian applause. We applauded and applauded. And applauded.

That the film is based on something theatrical is clear—characters get their own impassioned monologues and viewers are restrained almost entirely to one location: the cluttered home of the overly-apologetic Charlie (Brendan Fraser). Charlie teaches English online. He cherishes literature so much that he reads an essay about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to lower his blood pressure after he masturbates and suffers from what looks like a stroke. Charlie is also 600 pounds. His weight obstructs him from many things—he keeps his camera off during his lectures and cannot walk without the aid of a battered Hemi walker. He’s helped by a tenacious nurse named Liz (Hong Chau) who diagnoses him with a terminal heart condition. The week he has left to live becomes the film’s main preoccupation and provides its temporal structure. 

The Whale is as emotionally compelling as it is unexpected. That is, very. Each character is driven by a prodigious emotionality which compounds Charlie’s deterioration—Liz’s unbound love for her dying friend, the rancorous anger of his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), the fierce religious fixation of missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), and the broiling defeatedness of Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton). Despite his numbered days and current circumstance, Charlie is incredibly compassionate and gentle with those around him. He has so much love to give with few people to actually receive it. This is a poignant dilemma that is heightened by his addiction to food. It thrusts him into reclusion and alarms people away from him. 

It is difficult not to address the controversy surrounding the film. Many have expressed their discontent with how central Charlie’s weight is to the tragedy of his story. I will not contest this. Aronofsky has shown, at times, a predilection for the corporeal and the disturbing, and I sensed hints of this in The Whale. At some point, Charlie angrily stacks slices of a greasy pizza, covering it in cold cuts, and smothering it in mayonnaise. He heaves as he gorges. Aronofsky seemingly endeavors a grotesque depiction of addiction, of a binge-eating disorder that renders a man not only physically incapacitated but completely alone. It is not the most sensitive approach to a currently sensitive topic, and it will not land with many. The accusation that Charlie’s character is pathetic or pitiful, however, does not land with me. 

Fraser’s performance is outstanding. His minute facial expressions, his soft, apologetic tone, his passionate breakdown, his ever-joyful laugh, his strength, his weakness—Fraser has crafted a dimensional character so unbelievably easy to love, to admire, to emotionally latch onto and never want to let go. His earnestness accentuates the devastating cruelty of those around him. Kudos also to Hong Chau who certainly won the plaudits of viewers in her depiction of a ceaseless, tough love. 

I first felt underwhelmed knowing the sheer caliber of Aronofsky’s previous work. The film is not as exquisitely gripping as Black Swan (2010) or as formidably melodramatic as Mother! (2017). Both of these works have distinctly palpable identities, something not as discernible in The Whale. Instead, The Whale reads like a modest message film with love ruling above all. And still, Charlie’s character remains so vivid in my mind, his bountiful kindness is burned into my brain and lodged as a lump in my throat. At some point, he muses with a viscous whisper and astounding tenderness, “Do you ever get the feeling people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.” It’s clear that Aronofsky maintains the tremendous emotional impact of his general oeuvre. While deeply controversial, it is an alluring harbinger of what’s to come. I’m left only with curiosity for what Aronofsky does next. 

The film will be released in theaters on December 9, 2022. 

Image via Bwog Staff