Rated R for being mostly hard to watch. For such an important tale, tinged with hope, there's quite a bit of heavy R rated content. The movie starts off with the protagonist pleasuring himself to pornography. The language is intense throughout. Also, the protagonist, at one point, tries to kill himself by eating himself to death. There's a lot going on here and it isn't always an easy watch. R .
DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky
What's up with the resurrection of 4:3? Don't get me wrong, I get the artistic merit behind it. We don't need Cinemascope or VistaVision anymore. The 4:3 creates a sense of intimacy, especially in a movie where the walls are closing in on a man who gets increasingly larger. But I'll tell you, from a practical perspective, it is hard to find screengrabs in the right ratio. I still want the widescreen format because I don't want my page littered with giant images. But I also want to display screengrabs in the proper ratio. These are problems that I have that you probably don't.
Secretly, this is the movie I was waiting to see. It was hard to justify putting it early in the queue, mainly because it's only up for a few of the (unfortunately) slightly less prestigious awards. (Yeah, I get that Best Actor is up there, but it's no "Best Picture" or "Best Director".) But Brandan Fraser has been the talk of cinema for a little bit now. He went through a lot and it's odd how candid his story has become post #metoo. The odd thing is, I didn't really care for Fraser's work in his heyday. He did a lot of goofy stuff that was based on the fact that he was a good looking guy oozing charisma. But time has passed and he's embraced something very different in his comeback. His roles tend to be smaller or angrier. It's terrible to say, but his return has allowed him to act a little bit more. Everything is about realism and pushing boundaries and --God forbid! --challenging the audience in terms of subverting expectations. Now that Brendan Fraser is back (and I never wish the misery he went through onto anyone), I really like the work he has been doing and I want to see him win the Academy Award for this.
Somehow, The Whale is both the least Darren Aronofsky and most Darren Aronofsky movie that I've ever seen. I always have to remember that Aronofsky did The Fountain, a movie that I absolutely adore. But Aronofsky has always been this guy who wants me to hate myself. Because I'm Catholic, I keep thinking of Aronofsky as the guy who genuinely hates me because of his faith. He doesn't shy away from that aspect of himself with this movie. After all, the notion of what religion does to people is a major part of his storytelling, especially when it comes to a missionary who may mean well, but is tortruing a gay man who desperately wants to be left alone. Also, the notion of religion is what causes Charlie to spiral as much as he does because religion, through the closemindedness of high ranking officials, may have contributed to the death of his significant other. Yeah, Darren Aronofsky still hates me and I would feel uncomfortable in a room with him because I would just feel the hate eminating off of him.
But The Whale is oddly hopeful in the darkest way imaginable. Most people wouldn't look at The Whale and think, "My, what a lighthearted romp!" and nor should they. What a weird request that would be of people. But I will say, if I had to boil it down, there's almost something heartfelt about the whole thing. There's a guy who can't see the failure around him because he's so in love with his daughter, who through any other eyes looks like a trainwreck. I mean, if you didn't see the same guy try to take his own life by power-eating, a visual I have never seen before and I question how I watched it, you would think that this was the movie you'd want to share with your parents and grandparents. My students and I were talking Best Actor category yesterday and one of my students is fighting for Austin Butler to get it for Elvis. I showed Brendan Fraser in The Whale trailer and there were people who were choked up just from the trailer itself. There's something so heartfelt about the whole thing that it might say something about the juxtaposition between visuals and message. I got a positive comment from another blogger whom I know(ish) when I talked about it last time, but real hopeful stories need to have that contrast. We need to see the dirt and the grit before we accept that the world is a good place. When everything is happy and sunshines, it feels false. That sense of conflict minimizes life's real trials. It's why Hallmark never works for me.
Can I tell you? (Guys, can I?) Can I tell you that the reveal of the essay is one of the best reveals I've had in a movie. I don't want to put it as a twist. I'm starting to fear the word "twist" because it's equated with just being clever instead of honest. But I will say, the reveal of the essay is the perfect dismount for this movie. The entire time, I'm thinking that Charlie is a terrible writing teacher. It's not the first time I thought that about English teachers in movies. (Yeah, you're trying to count them. The answer is Dead Poets Society, Finding Forrester, Renaissance Man, and Dangerous Minds.) I thought that they were calling bad writing "good writing" because it was Charlie's significant other. Nope. The reveal that it is young Ellie, before she was completely broken (or, in spite of having been completely broken) as an eighth grader. When that reveal happens, so much changes for me. I mean, the entire time in the movie, Ellie is just a turd to Charlie. She kind of ends the movie as a turd, but less of a turd, but let's move past that so we don't lose the thread. But Charlie keeps telling her how amazing she is.
Now, from a father's perspective, Charlie should believe that his daughter is amazing. It's touching, but it is a bit much in my mind. It almost feels like Ellie is doing everything that she can to disprove that she is amazing. Heck, making Charlie write her essay just as emotional blackmail is pretty low. (Note: I'm so happy that he didn't write that essay for her. That was just my moment of integrity kicking in.) But when we find out that, while her craft could use some work, her analysis game is so on point that she could be confused for an adult. That was the point. I was looking at that essay and being a turd (not Ellie level turd, but a turd regardless), and there's this insight into a girl who thinks well beyond her years. Just because the construction is a little rudimentary, it hides a wealth of information behind a person. To a certain extent, the paper is treated almost as a magical item, curing Charlie from actual heart attacks. But I also have the suspension of disbelief that he believes that the paper will calm him down, so it in fact does. Not a placebo effect so much as a comfort object.
I already touched on my thoughts on Thomas. Thomas, as much as Darren Aronofsky hates religion, isn't a bad person in himself. You are supposed to get angry at Thomas (who is filled with doubts! Ah, very subtle!), but he's this guy who is in a place in his life that is malleable. Charlie, as much as he needs Thomas for physical things around the house, like getting dropped keys, provides more empathy for Thomas himself. It is odd, though, the role of Thomas in the greater characterization of Charlie and Ellie. Ellie doxes Thomas. She writes home to Thomas's parents, letting them know where he is. Now, both Thomas and Charlie view this moment as a sign that Ellie is a good person at heart. I think we're all supposed to question that. So much of Ellie's personality is rebellion and chaos. She doesn't want to be liked because it allows her to control a narrative that has escaped her long before. But it's interesting that both Charlie and Thomas view this action in terms of the consequences. Because Thomas's family forgives him for the theft he committed, these two guys view the action that Ellie takes as good. But we're all sitting on the outside, aware that the story could have and probably should have gone the other direction. But this ties back into the whole notion that the world is a hopeful place. As miserable as everything is, that light of hope shows that people are good. It's The Lower Depths for 2022, I guess.
God, I adored this movie. I kind of feel bad that I didn't talk about Liz at all. Liz is a major character in this movie. But as good as Hong Chau was, I kind of viewed her for a sounding board. After all, Charlie is such an optimist with most people, that Liz is the excuse to say what Charlie is really thinking. I'm sure that Hong Chau probably disagrees. After all, Liz has a direct connection with Charlie. Still, I wanted more.
I hate that I almost can't recommend this to everyone. Yeah, I'm going to stand by the fact that it uses grit and grime effectively. That whole belief is still there. But I also know that this movie is probably too much for a lot of people. It's the one time that I watched a hopeful movie and left more sad than when I entered. But that doesn't change that this is probably one of my favorite Darren Aronofsky film ("probably" meaning "definitely") and it is one of the better films of the 2023 Academy Awards.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.