Film is often about redemption, the seeking of absolution or, at times, both.

There’s tales about comeback kids, underdogs, the forgotten, the unforgiven, the unforgivable, the isolated.

In a way, director Darren Aronofsky’s latest feature is a bit of all of this, most notably being a return to stardom for Brendan Fraser with the year’s most committed, devastating performance. 

Structurally, The Whale tells the story of a reclusive, obese English teacher and his attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter at all costs to his health and psyche. But it’s also an allegory with strong evocations and outright references to the Hermann Melville classic “Moby Dick” and a treatise on mental health traumas.

There’s a depth of humanity to the film that shouldn’t be there at first glance, but the screenplay from Samuel D. Hunter based on his 2012 play of the same name opens up opportunities for Fraser to overwhelm audiences with a tremendous heartfelt performance.

Aronofsky and Fraser approach Charlie with such care that once viewers become accustomed to his size, all the matters at the core of the film are the purity of Charlie’s heart and how his inner pain forced him to succumb to chronic overeating and isolation. 

The weight and eating aren’t done as circus spectacle, though the technical skill and expertise required to design and fit Fraser with a prosthetic suit to realistically make the heavy-set actor appear as if he weighed 600 pounds.

It’s more clearly, once the story unfolds, that Charlie is a mere vessel by which Aronofsky could reasonably explain intense isolationism and its effects on those around them.

Unquestionably, it’s Fraser’s most introspective, emotional and powerful performance to date and Aronofsky is able to mine the depths of Fraser’s soul for raw emotional and honesty that hasn’t been shown so far in the veteran actor’s career.

The film’s small ensemble cast do a solid job helping to frame Charlie’s plight in a larger social context and it’s in scenes between Charlie and his daughter Ellie played by Sadie Sink that the most intriguing, provoking scene-work is done.

Sink provides The Whale with a raw emotion of blind rage masked behind layers of manipulation as Ellie. Her relentless combativeness doesn’t come across as pure malice, but weathered pain from the toll a strained relationship with Charlie brought upon Ellie during her formulative years.

It’s a terrific contrast to Hong Chau’s more empathetic, nurturing yet stern caretaker role as Liz, who takes the pain she feels from her own traumas and latches onto Charlie with sympathy rather than disdain.

The one odd duck in the ensemble is the presence of wandering missionary Thomas, played by Ty Simpkins. While the actor isn’t out of place with his performance, the character of Thomas unnecessarily muddies the waters and takes away from the larger allegory at play.

The Whale can be a bit heavy-handed in its dialogue at times, especially in the rare moments when Charlie isn’t at the center of conversation. The secondary storylines can become a bit clunky and forced to make additional, unnecessary points about organized religion and homosexuality.

Audiences will not be capable of being apathetic to the story and its larger themes. The Whale is especially overwhelming in this regard, bathing viewers in a constant tsunami of anger, frustration and sentimentality.

From a production standpoint, cinematographer Matthew Libatique excels at the ability to make the confining space of Charlie’s small apartment constantly feel large by approaching scenes of dialogue from fresh angles and perspectives to reframe audiences and prevent a stale, monotonous feel to the film.

With Fraser as a clear-cut Best Actor contender, The Whale was always going to be in the awards season race, but it’s become increasingly likely that it could exceed a single acting nomination and join the Best Picture race, with Chau also receiving enough support to have a chance at a supporting actress nod as well.

While it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, The Whale touches upon important social issues from an emotional, yet respectful place and is worth cinephiles spending two hours on at home or in theaters this awards season.

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