THE WHALE. It is an easy, reductive, even dismissive temptation to qualify Darren Aronofsky's work as "difficult" or "challenging." Ambitious? Polarizing? Indubitably. But in referring to it as challenging, or academic, people generally seem to mean they don't like it, or that it makes them think about things they'd rather not. (The irony of my own reductiveness is not lost on me). One could say his movies, taken as a collection, are genuinely frustrating: for every flash of brilliance, excoriating insight and technical flourish there is, inevitably, something — a grace note or motif or entire movie — not only out of place but also discordant to the occasional extent of putrefaction. (A good friend asked, with customary intellectual vigor, if 2014's Noah was a "shitpile of trash and crap." Hesitant though I may have been, I could not answer entirely in the negative).
But to be honest, that must be part of what so compels me in Aronofsky's work: the brashness, the commitment to the exploration of ideas, however misguided the exploration and/or the idea, the doggedness to keep making these things regardless of how cold or enraged the reaction. No two of his movies are alike except in the universality of their ability to alienate. I think he comes by it honestly, though, which makes the work, as well as its reception, all the more fascinating. That is to say, I don't see him as a true provocateur, at least in the pejorative sense. Rather, the movies suggest to me a hyperactive mind, one that travels in directions most do not see or, in seeing them, would choose to avoid. The exploration is the thing, the pearl-clutching of an unprepared audience a (probably not unwelcome) side-effect.
And so, both because I enjoy his intellectual rigor and because we're rapidly running out of writer-directors provided the opportunity to potentially fail on such a grand scale — plus the simple fact I like and admire most of what he's done — I keep showing up. And show up I did, if a little late in the game, for The Whale, Aronofsky's first feature since 2017's oft-maligned Mother! (a movie I will still defend) and Brendan Fraser's much talked-about return to the center of the frame.
Charlie (Fraser) is introduced to us semi-anonymously, the instructor of an online college expository writing course. Amid the boxed-in faces of his students, Charlie's frame remains a blank, a sometimes-commented-on void. His thinly constructed explanation, a permanently broken webcam, has proven adequate to generally deflect the queries of his class. It cannot hide the fact, though, that Charlie lives in constant shame and sorrow and has almost completed the task of eating himself to death. He, who "was always big," has, in the wake of a terrible loss, confined himself to his apartment. His formerly shared bedroom lies behind a locked door, his only prolonged human interaction is with Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and friend who visits daily, bringing (against her own better judgment) an endless supply of meatball subs and buckets of fried chicken and who begs Charlie to allow her to have him admitted to a hospital before his appetites take his life.
Gradual self-destruction is the goal, though, and Charlie will not be dissuaded. But before the end he hopes to salvage what he can of his relationship with the daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), he left behind almost a decade ago, when his life dramatically and permanently changed. Ellie's mother Mary (Samantha Morton), a confused but well-intentioned missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and a daily-visiting pizza guy, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), make brief appearances.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own stage play, The Whale limits itself to the space Charlie physically inhabits, only occasionally venturing out as far as his apartment's porch. Aronofsky, with Matthew Libatique, his director of photography and longest-term collaborator, exaggerates this closeness with a full-frame aspect ratio, a larger-scale version of Charlie's blank Zoom box that Fraser, in all his prosthesis and pathos, fills almost completely. It's a maybe-crass, definitely manipulative creative choice, but also a shrewdly calculated risk: In excising so much of the frame, Aronofsky brings us that much closer to Fraser's performance, which, unless total and authentic, could turn the whole show into a farce, or worse. This is no accident, of course; nor is Fraser's casting. It's all part of a scheme planned and executed by Aronofsky and Hunter and Libatique and the unassailably committed cast; it mostly works.
The risk in adapting work for the stage lies (forgive me) in their staginess. Even in the hands of competent directors, the self-imposed limitations of the form often result in stilted, boxed-in movies wherein the setting is only a backdrop against which speeches are delivered. Despite the physical closeness of The Whale, the gracefulness of the camera, of Andrew Weisblum's editing and of Fraser's wounded, kindly performance allow it to feel grander and more complete than its limitations.
I may take issue with some of the script's explorations of its themes and, as usual, question some of Aronofsky's fascinations, but even those elements I may not like contribute to a whole that is, more than a little bit because of its "flaws," a formidable and evocative experience. R. 117M. BROADWAY.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Catching up with the blue cat aliens 10 years later in James Cameron's sequel starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet. PG13. 192M. BROADWAY (3D), MILL CREEK (3D), MINOR.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER. RIP, Chadwick Boseman. The Marvel comic franchise continues with Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke and Tenoch Huerta Mejía as an amphibian king. PG13. 116M. MILL CREEK.
THE FABLEMANS. Steven Spielberg's coming-of-age story about a young filmmaker starring Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams and Judd Hirsch. PG13. 151M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
M3GAN. Yes, she's a child's baby-influencer, uncanny-valley robot who turns on her family but she looks amazing and who among us? PG13. 102M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
A MAN CALLED OTTO. A grumpy widower (Tom Hanks) who's lost the will to live bonds with a cat and the new family next door. Also starring Mariana Treviño. PG13. 126M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
MISSING. Storm Reid plays a cyber-sleuthing teen who learns her mother's (Nia Long) secrets when she disappears overseas. PG13. 111M. BROADWAY.
PLANE. A pilot (Gerard Butler) and a prisoner (Mike Colter) team up when their plane crashes in a war zone and passengers are taken hostage. R. 107M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH. Sequel spinoff starring the swashbuckling cat voiced by Antonio Banderas. With Salma Hayek. PG. 100M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
WHEN YOU FINISH SAVING THE WORLD. Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard star as a mother and teenage son who can't connect in this comedy drama directed by Jesse Eisenberg. R. 88M. BROADWAY.
Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.