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The Whale

The Rise of the Brenaissance and Reflections on The Whale

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We hear his voice first, and it’s such a warm, welcoming, and resonant sound, full of decency, empathy, and humor. As an audience, we recognize this voice. Brendan Fraser’s been far from big screen pictures for a while, but his contradictions have always made him a strikingly singular cinematic presence – the contrast of his imposing physique, towering height, and childlike, playful spirit. He does so much with his eyes here to give us a glimpse into Charlie’s sweet but tortured soul. He uses his warm, baritone voice and those famous big, dark eyes to convey a grace that is at odds with the character’s phenomenal size, which we are confronted with in the opening scene.

The Whale is the latest film from world-class auteur Darren Aronofsky, and our tragic protagonist is Charlie, played by Fraser. Right away, we gain intimate insight into who this person is. A gay man, visibly well over 600 pounds. A recluse, yet well-read, judging by the spine-covered bookshelves lining the walls of his four-walled apartment. An English professor who opts to keep his Zoom camera off, light and humorous with his students, even. Teaching from behind the safety of a black square.

We also see that Charlie never leaves this apartment. He is trapped, plagued by a host of internal and physical issues including obesity, lack of confidence brought on by an addiction to food. The camera, sound, set design, and location all work together in tandem under Aronofsky’s focused direction to further emphasize a pervasive sense of confinement. Charlie is a prisoner, trapped by the limiting confines of his own body from years of poor choices. This is a man unable to escape his grief over the loss of his partner or his regret over the choice he made long ago to leave his young daughter and ex-wife for said partner. He finds solace through a form of self-harm in an addiction to food.

The choice to tell this story in the boxy, 4.3 aspect ratio further heightens its sense of claustrophobia. This decision crams Charlie into the frame and guarantees that the audience cannot ignore the amount of space he takes up. We are trapped right alongside him, held prisoner in his apartment, with only glimpses into the outside world when another character enters or exits through his front door. Like Żuławski’s Possession or Von Trier’s Melancholia, this story is a feeling, more abstract than that of a traditional narrative, a sensation meant to be experienced. Biblical allegory is weaved within the fabric of the film.

The couch Charlie sits on is strategically placed in the center, allowing Charlie to be the sun, and the rest of the characters rotate around him like the moon and the planets. An entire solar system exists in this space/apartment.

Charlie is also humorous. When we meet him, he is miraculously able to still maintain a flicker of hope and is easily able to point out the light within others. Despite the way he himself is viewed by the outside world. Judged. Dismissed. Looked upon as a grotesque shell of a being by virtually everyone who crosses his path.

Despite these devastating conditions and the environment he inhabits, Charlie remains positive and compassionate to the people that orbit around him. Whether it be his closest friend Liz (played by the incandescent Hong Chau, recently nominated for an Oscar for this performance), a nurse who stops by every day to take care of him, haunted by her own enabling behavior, or his rageful, teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), to whom he has recently reached out after an eight-year absence in hopes of making amends. Shortly after arriving at his door, their initial meeting is awkward and explosive, but the two eventually settle into an interesting, thorny rapport.

Then there is a strange young missionary (Ty Simpkins), who knocks on his door at just the right time, and Charlie’s ex-wife (Samantha Morton) – who remains resentful and full of spite over his leaving her for a man a decade earlier.  Charlie navigates these conflicts and interactions sans judgment. He is dedicated to honesty and this vindication of truth, an idea he even teaches to his students. It is hard to not root for him, despite all his mistakes.

Aronofsky first came upon this material a decade ago, when he saw The Whale onstage in New York, thus beginning a journey toward adaptation for the screen alongside playwright Samuel D. Hunter, tapped to pen the screenplay. Hunter, a graduate of Juilliard and a Drama Desk Award-winning playwright, identifies as a gay man and hails from rural Idaho, so this is a person deeply attuned to this environment and the people who inhabit it and well qualified to write a reflection of the landscape.

Speaking with the LA Times on its origins, Hunter remarked, “All this stuff I had pushed way down […] about growing up gay in Idaho, attending a fundamentalist Christian school, battling depression and subsequently self-medicating with food in my late teens and early 20s. I said to myself, maybe I should just write something honest.”

There’s a great cinematic text that naturally exists within this play, and Aronofsky’s ability to have recognized that and to work in tandem alongside Hunter to bring his piece to life onscreen is a remarkable achievement to say the least.

For Aronofsky, though, the greatest obstacle was finding a lead actor who possessed the delicate and nuanced skillset required to animate the larger-than-life Charlie. After a decade-long casting hunt, he found his protagonist in Fraser. 

Brendan Fraser first broke out as an instant Hollywood leading man with 1992’s School Ties and Encino Man. That aforementioned warm voice and playful, towering presence, juxtaposed with his dark, classic good looks made Fraser a sudden household name. The kind of movie star that they don’t make anymore, thirty years on now. There’s not a single Gen-Zer or millennial in North America who did not grow up with at least one of his films on heavy rotation à la VHS, whether it was Airheads, George of the Jungle, or The Mummy franchise. After a generous run in the ’90s and early ’00s, Fraser all but disappeared from our screens overnight with no explanation – at the time. The landscape of the movie business was changing rapidly, and only a handful of cinema stars from this era managed to seamlessly make that transition. Fast forward to today, and the current #BRENAISSANCE movement, born out of a Twitter hashtag, is now a globally recognized phrase used to unofficially mark the return of this endearing leading man.

This phenomenon, the rapid rise of the “Brenaissance,” if you will, had me meditating on why this is happening.

What exactly is it about Fraser’s qualities or career that have inspired such a reverent and rabid fanbase, giving birth to a trending hashtag and global movement online, hailing the return of this former icon?

Speaking as a child of the ’90s, I wonder whether audiences are starved for real, human stories again? We have become so conditioned to Marvel and DC superheroes on constant, regurgitated rotation – who have replaced the former “movie star” trope – that I do wonder if audiences are subconsciously hungry for real people and human stories back on our screens again? 

Or maybe it’s the nostalgia of an old-fashioned movie star – the kind that does not exist anymore? 

Perhaps it’s a cocktail of all of the above?

Whatever the reason, it has been deeply moving to witness, as Fraser has carried audiences along for the renaissance ride since The Whale premiered at TIFF last fall, where he was met with an eight-minute standing ovation. That was only the beginning. 

There’s been the highly publicized Encino Man reunion with fellow former star Ke Huy Quan over actors’ roundtables and backstage at awards shows. There was that emotionally resonant and tearful speech Fraser gave as he took home Best Actor at the Critics’ Choice Awards. There was the late-night TV campaign trail and, of course, that recently secured Oscar nomination, of which Fraser is considered a frontrunner, placing him alongside top-tier talent such as Colin Farrell and Bill Nighy. 

Aronfosky was right to cast him, as Fraser is the beating heart of this film, the centerpiece on which it rests. Fraser’s performance is the sun, and all the supporting players are the planets that rotate around it. The characters move around one another in a communicative dance. The silences and pauses are intentional, the motivations and choices behind the characters often baffling, sometimes infuriating, all the while deeply complex and layered.

Charlie is a somewhat suicidal character. Eating is the weapon he has chosen to commit suicide with. We gain an immediate understanding of this based on his actions. The incessant refusal to call an ambulance or admit himself into a hospital, despite a skyrocketing blood pressure reading and pleading insistence from his dear friend and nurse, Liz. We know he is dying. The audience is given this information within the first quarter of the film, with a clock of sorts appearing in the bottom right-hand corner, a story that begins on Monday, and as we are told, will end on Friday in some way or another. Providing this insight up front creates a high-stakes scenario and a looming sense of dread only further amplified by the baritone orchestral notes, as we become more understanding of Charlie’s motivations and grow a deeper empathy toward him. We are rooting for him as he walks this journey of redemption. The film delivers on its thematic promises because it has a performer as delicate and seasoned as Fraser at the reins. 

This story, though, is in no way meant to offer grand commentary on “obesity,” as it has been often poorly mischaracterized as such by certain critics who have failed to muse deeper than a surface level reading. (No, it’s not a “fat suit,” this isn’t Shallow Hal, okay people?)

Make no mistake, this is Charlie’s story. Charlie’s us. He’s just another person. Someone who we could easily dismiss. His story is played out behind closed doors, he’s in the dark of a two-bedroom apartment in northern Idaho… Insert x or y, and this is any one of us.

The themes at play here are global human experiences, unique to most of us.

That of redemption. Regret. Addiction. Depression. Loss. Hope.

Aronofsky is no stranger to controversy or making polarizing art. He welcomes it. It is his modus operandi. Say what you will about this film, it sure has a way of provoking discussion and passionate, colorful opinions. This is its absolute intention.

Hunter said that all of his plays are about “hard-earned hope” and spending time with people who are going through something really difficult, stating that there is value in “looking into darker things, and spending time with people we normally wouldn’t […] As it broadens our humanity and worldview. Makes us human.”

This is a film that challenges us. It asks us to look at the totality of the human.

The whole human – the light and the dark parts.

This film is not asking us to look inward and gauge ourselves; it is demanding it of us. 

In the end, Elie is changed by Charlie. That is the primary element that gives the film hope. The Whale delivers on that hope because we see and experience ourselves, an internal shift. A mirror forcibly held up to us, as viewers. It demands this of us, and it delivers on that hope through what Charlie inevitably gives to his daughter.

I cannot help but close with reference to an excerpt from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that Brendan Fraser has frequently cited during the press campaign for The Whale, which sums up the underlying message of this story so eloquently for me: “I know not all that may come, but come what may, I will go to it laughing.”


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