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.