Also reviewed this week: Knock At The Cabin and Saint Omer
Most of the chatter about Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale has revolved around Brendan Fraser’s fat suit.
A combination of prosthetics and CGI was used to create the illusion of a housebound 600lb man, for whom rising from an armchair is a supreme act of will.
The result is convincing, and there’s nothing wrong with Fraser’s performance, which has earned him an Oscar nomination and been ascribed that dreaded word, ‘comeback’. The bigger question though is what, if anything, all of this means.
The film is based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter and feels stage-bound, perhaps deliberately. In a dank and shabby midwestern apartment, Charlie (Fraser) hosts online English literature classes for college students; though he can see them, Charlie has turned his computer’s camera off and pretends it’s broken. He’s ashamed of his appearance and is now so overweight that he’s at risk of congenital heart failure.
His lonely existence is punctured by visits from a fast food courier who delivers the poisons of Charlie’s choice. He calls hello through the door, but Charlie never answers, and waits till he’s gone before retrieving the food.
His only actual visitor is Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who checks his vitals and lectures him gently on his disastrous personal habits; she also brings him sub sandwiches packed with minced meat, which he craves.
The reason for her selfless devotion will gradually become clear, but meanwhile, Charlie’s dwindling universe is invaded by a mild-mannered stranger. Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a Bible-thumper, a member of a local Christian cult. Instead of turning him away, Charlie asks him in and smiles forbearingly as the young man inflicts the word of the Lord on him.
Charlie has heard it all before because his late boyfriend Alan was a member of the cult too — it was that bereavement which derailed his life and led him to this sorry pass.
To be with Alan, Charlie left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and their infant child Ellie. Now a vengeful teenager, Ellie (Sadie Sink) also turns up out of the blue to mess with her father’s head and read him the riot act. Like a bulbous Christ, Charlie endures it all because what he craves is redemption.
Aronofsky’s obsession with body horror is nothing new: in The Wrestler, an ageing combatant uses steroids that might kill him to prolong his sad career; in Black Swan, a ballet dancer drives herself through intense pain to the brink of insanity to nab herself a coveted lead role.
But the director’s recent films (Noah, Mother!) have collapsed inwards under the weight of their own pretentiousness: subtext has obtruded unpleasantly, obscuring text. The Whale wears its ideas on its sleeve and they lack sophistication.
While encouraging us to care about Charlie’s predicament, Aronofsky constantly goads us into dismissing him as disgusting. He does not eat, he devours, sweating and slavering as he wolfs fried chicken by the bucketful, folds pizza slices into his mouth in ways that defy the laws of physics. Afterwards, the director’s camera lingers on those glistening, grease-smeared lips, daring us not to be horrified.
What we are intended to feel is pity — or are we supposed to feel ashamed of our disgust? Either way, The Whale does not manage to elevate Charlie’s plight into the stratosphere of tragedy, and Hunter’s screenplay is heavy-handed, theatrical.
Attempts to conflate Charlie with Moby Dick are half-hearted and juvenile, and Fraser’s nicely judged performance is the only thing which now and then persuades us Charlie might actually be real.
Chau has also been Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of the selfless Liz, but is eclipsed by Sink’s terrifying turn as Charlie’s abandoned daughter. And in the film’s best scene, his ex-wife Mary also pays a visit, and Morton squeezes a lifetime’s pain into a brief and brilliantly delivered soliloquy.
Rating: Three stars
Knock At The Cabin (16, 117mins)
Outside a lakeside holiday home, a little girl is sitting among the spring flowers when a very large man approaches.
Leonard (Dave Bautista) is covered in tats and looks terrifying, yet speaks softly and expresses his sincere regret at what is to come.
Then Leonard and three associates surround the house and lock its occupants inside. The little girl is Wen (Kristen Cui), adopted child of Andrew and Eric (Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff), who listen in mounting horror as Leonard outlines his strange proposal: the apocalypse is coming and mankind can only be saved if one of the family agrees to sacrifice themselves. Are these people mad or might they be telling the truth?
This is the premise of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest offering, and the director has the skill to tease out a largely static drama. While we and they are initially convinced that Leonard and Co are fruit bats, flashed news reports hint that there might be some truth to their claims. In order to keep us neutral, Shyamalan avoids the depiction of violence and Bautista is excellent as a saintly home invader.
Rating: Three stars
Saint Omer (12A, 122mins)
Courtroom dramas have become synonymous with melodrama and foghorn acting, but all of that is upended in Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, a quiet but devastating film based on a true story.
Parisienne writer Rama (Kayije Kagame) travels to Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais to observe the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a woman accused of drowning her infant daughter on a nearby beach.
Both women are of Senegalese extraction and Rama, who’s pregnant herself, watches transfixed as Laurence calmly describes her actions, which she seems to ascribe to witchcraft.
The majesty of the French legal system is impressive, but as we watch, a disparity between black and white impressions of what’s going on becomes clear. Laurence’s relationship with an older white man suggests a kind of exploitation, and as Saint Omer progresses, Laurence emerges as a latter day Medea. Or does she?
Diop’s film is not really about deciding guilt or innocence, but rather an exploration of the power of language, and the illusory nature of perception.
Rating: Five stars