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The Whale is Darren Aronofsky’s best movie, but I’ll only see it once

The Whale is the best movie from Darren Aronofsky since The Wrestler in 2008, but I'm not sure I could sit through it a second time

You don’t need me to tell you The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s new drama movie starring Brendan Fraser, is great. It’s a festival darling that’s scored many top-rated reviews, not least from us here at The Digital Fix.

I was lucky enough to catch it during the London Film Festival, in a packed Glasgow screening. I’d like to think everyone was there because of the Brenaissance, but it probably has more to do with all the buzz for something from an acclaimed filmmaker that didn’t have a trailer yet.

In any case, I was as enamoured as my colleague Charlotte. Despite my personal misgivings about Aronofsky’s work, I found The Whale brilliant, brutal, and mesmerising. A crushing look at willful self-destruction and the search for honesty and truth, anchored by one of Fraser’s greatest performances. And even though I loved it, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again.

After a decade of psychological horror movies and fables, Aronofsky returns to more humanistic territory in The Whale. As in 2008’s The Wrestler, it’s a singular portrait of someone in crisis who’s perhaps too far gone to change course. We meet the lead characters, Charlie and Randy, at a point where their bodies are starting to give out, either by compulsive eating or years of professional wrestling.

Charlie, now 600lbs, is suffering from increasing lung and heart problems, but he refuses to go to a hospital despite protests from friend and carer Liz. Barring some flashbacks and one shot at the beginning, the entirety of The Whale takes place within the confines of his apartment, jerry-rigged for his size and mobility issues, where he gives online university lectures on writing while eating more or less constantly.

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

Heartbreak, grief, and guilt have pushed him towards a state of living purgatory. He was previously married and had a child, but left them both to be with another man, Alan. who since passed from suicide by starvation. Charlie still lives in their apartment, largely preserved besides his personal needs, and it’s implied he hasn’t left in what’s become years.

The circumstances of Alan’s death, tangled up in a local fundamentalist cult, drive Charlie towards hyper-consumption: he’s literally eating himself into the grave, and his only real wish is to establish a bond with his now teenage daughter, Ellie, before he goes. The Whale is a fatalist text, and Aronofsky’s staging doesn’t stray far from writer Samuel D Hunter’s original play, sitting mostly in Charlie’s frontroom for the duration.

Randy’s journey might involve more space, but it’s still as intimate. The camera is almost totally fixated on him, sitting in his presence, observing his choices, listening for what he says above other sounds. You see him trudge through his supermarket day job, and struggle to cope with mounting bills and a slipping quality of life. We understand the only thing he craves is another wrestling match, performed to a sold out house full of roaring fans.

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Medical advice dictates that’ll put him at serious risk, a common forced retirement in professional wrestling. But when Randy’s life otherwise is miserable, what else is there? At least he’ll be going out doing something he enjoys, rather than fading away as some have been. On some level, Charlie would likely respect Randy’s decision, because it’s honest, something he’s continually asking of his students and daughter.

The Whale carries Aronofsky’s thematic through-line of artistry and the costs therein, pulling at the desire to be true and real in how we express ourselves. His take here is as dark as he’s ever been, but it’s a return to the candour of The Wrestler, away from the pathological terror that made up his 2010s output.

Black Swan had Natalie Portman’s Nina preoccupied by the dedication needed to be a top-tier ballerina, suffering a mental break from the physical and emotional duress. She has hallucinations and becomes deeply ill. In mother!, the point-of-view is from the wife of a poet, played by Jennifer Lawrence, as their home is invaded by rabid fans of his. The entire ordeal is bloody and frenzied, and Mother, as Lawrence’s character is known, is eventually left to burn before being reborn as another muse.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

They’re horrifying and absorbing in their own ways, but the ephemeral supernatural qualities don’t always work in their favour. Black Swan borrows visual cues from Satoshi Kon’s anime movie masterpiece Perfect Blue – a worthy inspiration if ever there was one – but doesn’t quite leave the same impression, while mother!’s depiction of an artist drowning in his own success just seems self-serving.

These crossover with Noah in a tendency for Aronofsky’s work to have a narcissistic edge. As a biblical parable about a man asked by God to help protect civilisation, there’s a lot of room for self-aggrandising and pontification on the cross upon one’s shoulders. You can sense plenty of this in The Wrestler and The Whale too, and The Fountain, Aronofksy’s 2006 fantasy movie about one man’s attempt to find immortality across time and space.

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain

Aronofsky isn’t a subtle filmmaker, and that’s why The Whale strikes such a chord. The images are still striking, but the scenes leave deeper marks. The daggers when Charlie argues with Ellie, the sadness that courses through Liz when she sees him, and the floating anguish in Rob Simonsen’s all contribute to the devastation The Whale leaves behind.

And it’s devastation we see coming, just like The Wrestler. Beneath all the religious allegories and attempts at shocking sequences, Aronofsky is best when he shows us someone completely broken, and doesn’t try to fix them. That might sound horrible, but it’s honest, and though we could all use more of that, I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for more. Sometimes the truth hurts a little too much.

The Whale is in cinemas in the US on December 9.