“ The Whale” ( 2022)

Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter has incorporated biographical tidbits to draw the director, Darren Aronofsky, the cast, and the viewers into a tragedy of grief, regret, damaged children, and self-immolation. The 41 year-old Hunter wrote “ The Whale” initially as a play, which premiered in Denver. The commonalities between Hunter and Charlie, his protagonist, are many. Hunter taught college composition, grew up in fundamentalist religion in Idaho, is gay, and has a daughter. He also suffered from depression and self-medicated with food. Like a good writing instructor he practices the mantra: write what you know.

So why would we wish to view a man slowly killing himself with extreme behavior and its accumulation of heartaches? The answer is two-fold: for the flawless acting and for the positive way we are emotionally saved from this sad story.

The film follows in a claustrophobic setting. A small, cluttered sitting room and connected kitchen. Charlie is on-line with his students. He lies and tells them that his computer’s camera lens is broken, all the while cajoling them to write something honest. He knows his visage will disgust them. Likewise, the pizza man, who delivers at least bi-weekly is visually kept at bay.

As Charlie, Brendan Fraser is Oscar worthy. He wheezes, clutches his chest, roils like Melville’s Moby Dick, and portrays believable bouts of self-pity. His perennially moist eyes seem to say” how did this happen”. We see him gorge on tubs of greasy chicken and toss half-eaten candy bars back into his stash drawer, only to retrieve them again and again. Here, Hunter supplies Charlie’s student with a sentence from his own student’s writing~ one that he thought was brutally honest. “ I think that I need to accept that my life isn’t going to be very exciting.” In Charlie, we know that the teacher has accepted that his own life is over.

Charlie has not completely ostracized himself. Four people come and go. The first is Liz, Charlie’s nurse, arrestingly portrayed by the American-Vietmanese actress Hong Chou. Chou is alternately exasperated and fraught with anxiety. In one scene, she is required to perform the Heimlich maneuver. She yells, “ Chew like a normal human being!” She is as direct as she gives Charlie’s blood pressure reading at 238/134. Even the audience gasps. He refuses to go to the hospital.

As the sister of Charlie’s lover, who has jumped to his own death, Liz is not ready to go through this again. Her anguish is palpable. She loves Charlie, and because of this , she is the classic enabler. Liz brings Charlie meatball sandwiches with double cheese and provides him with a double-wide wheelchair. Chou’s nuanced caregiver-portrayal lights the screen.

Charlie only wishes for Liz to read an essay on Melville’s “Moby Dick”. She is angry with the circumstances. We later learn the essay is Charlie’s daughter’s. Enter Elle. Sadie Sink, 20, is a dynamo as a failing high school senior abandoned by her father and given up on by her mother. Elle is mean, manipulative, and hate-filled. Now, suspended for writing a threatening note to her school mate, she sees her father for the first time in eight years. Her first words: “ Am I going to get fat?”

Scene after scene astound. Elle drugs Charlie with sleeping pills, blackmails a New Life Missionary, and in one of the most excruciating sequences demands that her father stand-up and walk to her without his walker. Sink seethes with pain and her bravado burns the soul. Her statements explode: “ You taught me at eight that people are assholes,” “ You could have been part of my life!” Charlie responds softly, “Elle, who would want me to be part of their life?”

Edward Albee’s “Whose Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe?” is brought to mind. And the thought continues with the entrance of Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife and Elle’s mother. The British character actress, Samantha Morton, 45, is astounding. I first saw her in “ Morvern Callar” ( 2002) a nihilistic and bizarre tale where nothing seems to phase her character. Here, Morton is electrically charged. When she screams, “ Enough!” at Elle, it is like the gates of Hell have opened. Mary admonishes Charlie for planning to give his life’s savings to Elle. At 17, she would spend it on face tattoos and ponies.

Though Mary fought for full custody, she feels she has been a bad mother. Failing at everything. She calls their daughter “ a terror”. “ She is awful, Charlie. She is evil.” Alcohol has loosened Mary’s tongue, and she lets slip the reason she has kept Elle from him this long. “ I was worried she would hurt you.” We have seen enough to believe her.

Mary shows what Elle has posted on-line and , in a monologue of exceptional tenderness, she tells Charlie how sorry she is for the death of his friend. Charlie and Mary recall their Oregon beach memories when Elle was eight. Mary offers to help and rests her head on his shoulder. Love is here.

Finally, emotionally exhausted viewers wind down with a plot twist. The missionary, Thomas, ( Ty Simpkins) confesses to Elle that he has stolen church funds. She tells him that she likes him better, and then sneeringly notifies his church and his parents of his wrong doing. All forgive him. His forgiveness is seen by Charlie as proof that Elle set Thomas’ redemption in motion, and that she cares for another human being.

Fraser delivers those last meaningful lines: “ People are amazing. People are incapable of not caring”.

The final light on Elle’s face and her screech of, “ Please, Daddy!” just may show that his innocent love got through.


I don’t have to read the 194 poetic pages of Tarja Laine’s “Bodies In Pain” to feel  auteur director Darren Aronofsky’s pain and suffering. See ” Mother!” And you will experience being put through the ringer multiple times. Viewing this well-paced film is part Fellini hell and part romantic-horror farce. Throw in the allegories of the creation myth, Cain and Able, and various biblical devotional rites and your mind is spinning in symbol, and your psyche is torn between horror and laughter. Look at the entire emotional spin as a writer, self-absorbed and caught up in the flame of fame. He knows he has taken for granted his wife-muse. Is this film auto-biographical?! The intensity would leave one to believe so. But this tale gives us more than the easy creator/user trope.

Mother is our focus. Jennifer Lawrence is the young, devoted wife deeply into nesting. She hand tints and spackles walls, mounts marble sinks, and “breathes life back” into every lovely room of an amazing Victorian farmhouse. The farmhouse itself is toured as Lawrence searches for her bed-absent husband. The mid-hued color pallet and the  use of almost radiant light kept me interested. Her perky nipples and nubile silhouette were captured to keep others engaged.

Lawrence is on-screen for almost the entire movie. Her first spoken word is a question, ” Baby” ? Abandonment is a big theme for her. She wants to be alone with her artist husband. She can’t seem to understand that she is not enough. My favorite line of Lawrence’s is ” You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you!” This girl suffers, is brutally pummeled by her husband’s fans, has her work destroyed, and in the most terrifying scene  loses her infant son as fan fodder to the faithful. Yikes! The Christian symbolism is much askew.

Director Darren Aronofsky is forty-eight and has an impressive list of films to his credit.  Both “The Black Swan” (2010)  and ” The Wrestler” ( 2008 ) I loved.  ” Mother!”  I give a mixed review. The setting has all the possibilities of beauty amid its creaks and acid-like bloody walls. Our heroine is devoted, possessive, and scared of losing her dream. She often quaffs an amber liquid from the medicine closet that has her unreliably seeing embryonic pulsing walls. Her husband ( Javier Bardem ) is distant, pre-occupied, self-deprecating at first. He is a poet who is having trouble writing.

His sanctuary is guarded by Mother. Here, in the room at the top of the stairs, he keeps a glowing piece of fused glass. Diamond-like and cherished, it is all that is left of a fire in which our poet lost everything. It is only at the film’s end that we understand the heart of this story. The Phoenix rising from ashes is meshed with Good Friday rites and ashed foreheads. We get to figure that out.

Sounds and irritating tuning fork pings keep the story vibrating. Strange, duplicitous guests arrive. There is tension between husband and wife over priorities. Our guests are Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, and they present more doubts about mother-muse’s status in the house. Simple smoking, drinking, and laundry scenes fuel viewer angst. There is a creepy plugged toilet, hot skillet burns, and more seeping red stains. Jennifer Lawrence is adept at tossing lace panties and unwanted cigarette lighters behind furniture. If she can’t rid herself of the intruders, she will at least remove their symbolic addictions behind appliances and furniture.

Next, we have our intruding guests’ two sons crashing in the front door. Murder and mayhem gets wilder and wilder. No character has a name. The hordes of adoring fans keep coming, and the publisher kills off a room of soldier-clad invaders.

Over the shoulder shots and close-ups that dominated the early scenes now break open showing in an all-out-war within the house. Exploded light bulbs, toads, and secret passageways, and dialing 911 doesn’t pan out. The birth scene, and the poet’s ” they have come to see me”  all gel into a swarm of holy card pictures of our poet being pinned donkey-like to the walls. Chants and crawling over bodies mingle with quiet. “They bought us gifts” our poet beams. Adoration by the masses is his desire.  He even sits in the king’s chair.  Our poor mother-muse is pummeled while our poet says, ” we must find a way to forgive.” He rips her heart out, only to do it again~ literally. The lyrics, ” it’s the end of the world if you don’t love me anymore” brings us over the top. “Why does my heart go on beating” is camp through and thorough. The credits including ink pen scratchings are creative ,too.

Farce, horror, domestic drama,and allegory  are all combined. It is an imaginative first! The Greeks ( Jennifer Lawrence wears a toga- styled Grecian gown) say that seeing pain in art makes our own lives seem better. Well, I don’t know about that!