Josiah Morgan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Darren Aronofsky was one of my first cinematic loves as I was initially exploring the medium nearly a decade ago. He and I have fallen out of touch since. I now tend to view his work as leering, pornographic and manipulative, with the exception of The Fountain which remains a very delicate and accomplished work.
But this film put me back in touch with him, and reminded me why I fell in love with the very medium in the first place.
The Whale is still leering, pornographic and manipulative. No arguments there. Its approach to Charlie's body and character is cruel at best, and exploitative at worst. But underneath that is the play by Samuel D. Hunter, which has to be one of the best playtexts I've ever come across (and no, I hadn't read it prior to seeing this film). I recognise that my argument so far may sound contradictory - 'the playtext is extraordinary, but Aronofsky's direction exploits it for its leeriest qualities' - but this is only half the story. The rest of the film around Charlie's body is a very richly observed and well-balanced exploration of a very, very complex set of character dynamics. All the excess of Aronofsky's recent string of failures is stripped back here to something exposing its rawest nerves, its most delicate parts, with no fluff.
To slowly, delicately build a compelling argument for a playtext on screen is a very, very difficult job. Aronofsky gets the rhythm exactly right - the cruelty, the gazes, the beats, the empty space and the silences. The 4:3 aspect ratio to me has less to do with exploiting Fraser's image and more to do with confining the aesthetic of the film so that the world of the apartment must necessarily be understood as the entire world. I didn't even realise I was loving this film until the final twenty minutes, after I'd already untangled all of the dimensions in its exploitative and unethical presentation in my head. That's there too. But once you get past that, you're left with the rest. A film about being unable to speak across the void of your bodies. A film in which everybody is a visitor. The Hollywood arthouse approach to the text gives the entire film a strange feeling of lightness, like the actual words have only barely been demonstrated or considered. At the end of the day, there are bad bits to this. Quite bad ones: the scene where Fraser eats two pizzas and douses one in mayonnaise is an obvious contender. And yes, it's manipulative. And yes, that manipulation works. But the film isn't trying too hard for anything when it's focused on the rhythm, and when the frame carries just the faces of its actors.
So yes, both Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau deserve Oscars for their work here. There is just no competition in any other film this year, I think. Both mine Samuel D. Hunter's script for every inch of subtext, and skilfully carry every textual Chekhov's gun right through to their eventual firing. Sadie Sink is great here, too. I've seen some people complain that her performance is one-note; this feels like an apathetic approach to the text. The film is about a bunch of people carrying around hurt and finding increasingly simple ways to express it. Of course that hurt is going to be the primary emotional layer. Of course it is. But Sink wields what's under that hurt. It's there. With all this said, my pick for best performance in the film goes to Samantha Morton, who shows up for just ten minutes in the middle and runs away with it, making hers not just the best performance of the year but probably the best performance of the 2020s so far, because this film is filled to the brim with performances more notable than anything this side of 2012.
Aronofsky has been a bigger filmmaker than this before. But he's never been better.
I will likely never watch this again, it is just far too unpleasant and operating in a register I am mostly disinterested in. But I would still wager that in a century's time, when all the noise of the contemporary, all the distraction of the 'now' has disappeared, this will be the film Aronofsky is remembered for. This strange, delicate, excessive, pornographic, manipulative, bloated, yet quiet little drama that plays like a contemporary Dreyer.