In ‘The Whale,’ Brendan Fraser Astounds With a Performance of Gargantuan Emotion

Once in a while there are performances so special that our knowledge of the actor completely disappears. Forget everything you’ve ever seen Brendan Fraser in before walking into “The Whale,” in which he delivers one of this year’s most impressive onscreen transformations. Heightening its effect is how director Darren Aronofsky has made a movie that is challenging and emotionally brutal, before reaching some cathartic places. Sometimes Aronofsky, rarely known for small gestures, threatens to push the material into overly bombastic territory. Yet, this is a film where the very size of the main character is an expression of the depths of his pain and the vastness of all the feelings enveloping the story.

The screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his play, is confined to the home of Charlie (Fraser), who teaches online writing courses but lies to his students about his webcam not working. He wants to hide his great weight, which measures in hundreds of pounds. His only constant visitor is Liz (Hong Chau), a friend who is also a nurse and warns Charlie that his blood pressure is too high and heart is on the verge of failure. He refuses to go to the hospital. How did Charlie get to this point? We learn he was once a professor who fell in love with a male student, whose own death then pushed Charlie into a breakdown state that led to his current reality. Two other visitors soon arrive. One of them, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), is a young missionary from a local church Liz knows resentfully well. The other is Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie’s daughter, an acidic high schooler who wants nothing to do with him. But he wants a last chance to make things right before he might pass away.

“The Whale” marks a return to the more grounded character studies that Aronofsky excels at. After the pretentious and wild surrealist trip “Mother!,” this one ranks with Aronofsky films like “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” which feature characters whose inner struggles manifest through physical challenges or strains. In “The Wrestler,” Mickey Rourke’s pro wrestler might die from a heart ailment if he decides to ever step into the ring again. Natalie Portman’s tormented ballerina in “Black Swan” pushes herself to the physical limit due to her insecurities and obsessive chase after perfection. Aronofsky’s gloriously nightmarish “Requiem for a Dream” never shies away from the physical destruction caused by drug abuse. With “The Whale” he ventures into more dicey territory because of Charlie’s condition. Already there have been criticisms leveled at the movie for its supposed “fatphobia.” To level this accusation at the movie is to miss the subtleties of its various meanings. That Charlie has a massive girth is a fact, but why is he this way and will we pay attention to him as an individual? Aronofsky is not out to shame Charlie, but to tell a story where the physical condition of the character challenges our gaze in a non-exploitative way.

For Brendan Fraser, this is a career-best performance. How well or poorly “The Whale grabs a viewer rests entirely on his shoulders. Surely Fraser will receive an Academy Award nomination, if not the award itself. He meets the challenge of the role quite brilliantly by truly evoking an empathetic character so well, that the acting surpasses our awareness of the impressively massive makeup and prosthetics work he must perform from underneath. Because he is required to sit for much of the movie, Fraser must act with his eyes and what the actor achieves are moments of wonderful ache, tenderness and endurance. Charlie is a man who knows literature inside and out. When feeling ill he soothes himself by reading from an essay about “Moby Dick,” which contains an eloquent observation about Melville seeking to share his pain with the reader. Instead of treating the eager Bible thumper Thomas with contempt, Charlie seems to enjoy his company if only because it’s a young idealist who might offer some escape from his despair. Sadie Sink, of “Stranger Things,” then brings the stinging rebellion of a teenager who feels abandoned and demands answers from Charlie, forcing herself to hide any affection threatening to peer out. Liz has her own painful reasons for resenting Thomas but also staying loyal to Charlie.

Everyone in this cast is pushed to great emotional limits in “The Whale.” Fraser above all, but Sink also eventually reaches some searing crescendos with her acting. This is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, which is common with Aronofsky. Even his attempts at blockbuster scale filmmaking, such as “The Fountain” and “Noah,” are unashamed to be openly romantic and idealist, even preachy. “The Whale” is confined to one space and yet feels grand and claustrophobic at the same time. Aronofsky’s regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, can light a living room like a battleground of souls. The score, by Rob Simonsen, goes for bombastic emotion. But in an age of timid dramas and franchises, at least there are still filmmakers willing to take risks. With its imperfections, such as some somewhat unconvincing twists involving Thomas, we’re still glad “The Whale” exists. The characters are grappling with feelings and truths we don’t see often so starkly in American mainstream dramas. We do hurt ourselves, and it’s not always so easy to forgive or ask for a second chance. When Charlie falls into an episode where he devours entire pizzas and other items, it’s more of an expression of a heart so hurt and enraged, this is how Charlie deals with it. Don’t we all go through moments where we wish we could devour the world? Charlie’s ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), also drops in, coping with her own struggles through drinking. There is still some tenderness between them, mixed in with regret. Life can be heartbreaking, or else there would be no such thing as drama.

Towering over its sea of rages, sorrow and potential hope is Brendan Fraser’s performance. Best known for comedies and action romps like “The Mummy,” “Black from the Past” and “Encino Man,” Fraser’s more dramatic potential would always be clear in excellent films such as “Gods and Monsters.” Aronofsky gives him his best role by finding a way to completely make Brendan Fraser disappear. He is the one making the prosthetic illusion work because of the way he creates a personality and forces the audience to empathize. Like the performance at its core, “The Whale” is riveting without treating its audience like shallow vessels. It doesn’t care about making us feel unsettled or sad. There is almost something cathartic in a movie that decides to be so stark because while Charlie is suffering, he also hasn’t given up on what matters most to him. He loves his daughter and is determined to show it. Fraser and Aronofsky have thus created a character you will not soon forget.

The Whale” releases Dec. 9 in theaters nationwide.