Director Darren Aronofsky — winner of the Provincetown International Film Festival’s 2011 Filmmaker on the Edge award — has never been known for subtlety. He wallows in garishly surreal psychological horror and torment (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Mother!) and every so often comes up with a more accessible moral tale about a self-destructive hero, most successfully with The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke as the eponymous over-the-hill muscleman; far less so with Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical ark builder and tyrannical family man; and now with The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser, which is showing in local theaters.
Fraser plays Charlie, a grotesquely overweight online college writing instructor who, in the movie’s simplistic understanding of morbid obesity, is literally eating himself to death. The screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter is adapted from his play, which opened off-Broadway in 2012. Not surprisingly, the film version feels stagey — as trapped and immobile in Charlie’s small home as Charlie is himself. Aronofsky does not “open up” the location of the story, as filmmakers often do, and it all makes sense, emotionally and dramatically, as a hothouse of emotion — particularly Charlie’s sorrow and need for redemption, and the frustration and rage of those around him. Indeed, it makes too much sense. Hunter’s writing is a bit schematic and obvious, despite the masks and ruses each character puts forward.
Charlie is gay, and that is the source of his problem, though he’s thankfully not remorseful about his sexual orientation per se. He married a woman as a young man and they had a daughter, then he fell in love with one of his male students and left his family. His young lover, coming from a religious background — identified as Mormon in the play but not in the film — couldn’t deal with his family’s disapproval and took his own life. His sister (Hong Chau), a nurse, tends to Charlie after the suicide, commiserating in grief. And there are other visitors: Charlie’s estranged daughter (Sadie Sink), now a tormented and angry teen; his ex-wife (Samantha Morton), a bitter drunk; and a young missionary (Ty Simpkins) who hopes to redeem his own past by showing Charlie the light.
Despite the layers of desperation that the story and Aronofsky impose on the actors, the performances are quite stunning, and they’re certainly worthy of the notice they’ve received (Fraser and Chau are Oscar-nominated.) Sink, as the smart but self-defeating daughter, is all too transparent in her anger, but nevertheless intriguing. Simpkins, best known for the Insidious movie series, is quite compelling as a foil to Charlie as they thrust and dodge in discussions of faith. Chau is wonderful as a caregiver and enabler. And Morton, as she did in She Said, nearly steals the picture in a brief appearance as the miserable ex.
Amid the histrionics is Fraser’s gentle giant. He is so unpretentious and empathetic in depicting Charlie’s mission of self-punishment and redemption that the manipulative story ends up scoring all its points. Watching Charlie scarf down food is horrifying, yet his love of critical thought and writing (especially an essay on Moby Dick that gives the movie its title and central metaphor) and his clarity about his own flaws are powerful and moving. It’s an indelible career high for Fraser, an actor best known for relatively mindless Hollywood entertainment. His performance makes The Whale worth the trip.
Another journey into oblivion, the Polish film EO, is also currently playing in theaters and nominated for an Oscar. It’s directed and co-written by 84-year-old Jerzy Skolimowski (Moonlighting, Deep End), one of the great Polish cinema talents (like Wajda, Polanski, Zanussi, and Kieslowski) who left their Communist homeland for greater artistic freedom in the West. EO, set in today’s westernized Poland, is like an ode to Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic about a donkey that’s told from the animal’s point of view. Like Balthazar in that film, EO is a donkey who moves from innocent origins to the ultimate in beastly degradation.
It’s a trek worthy of Candide: EO begins his life in a circus, loved by a trainer named Kasandra. When circuses are forced by statute to eliminate animal acts, he drifts from one work situation to another, tied to humans who are alternately kind and vicious, both to the animals they own and to themselves. Along the way he observes horses, whose lives are twisted for human purposes, as well as fur animals caged and slaughtered. Near the end, he finds himself on an Italian estate, tended by a priest and his aristocratic mother (Isabelle Huppert). But he senses the weirdness of the place and moves on.
The humans — even Kasandra, whom EO loves unconditionally — are the sideshow in Skolimowski’s movie. There is little dialogue, and the human element is barely developed. The donkey’s subjective experience is the core of the story, and it’s as rich with expression as the donkey’s face is impassive. It’s easy to sense EO’s love of the natural world and his distrust of most people. The luscious and plaintive score by Pawel Mykietyn is one reason, and the eerie, saturated cinematography of Michael Dymek is another.
As a filmmaker, Skolimowski is a master of mood and shades of paranoia, and EO is no exception. Because the donkey is mostly mute, much of the plot is understood by suggestion, not exposition — a poetic and allegorical fable of the slaughter of innocents (such as the prewar Jews, or even Poland itself.) But it’s also an exploration of the life force within us, no matter what the species. And that makes it beautiful, despite the awfulness of fate.