Watch enough movies at a film festival and sure enough, potential double bills start to emerge. Nothing about Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, in which a morbidly obese man (Brendan Fraser) begins eating himself to death, and Florian Zeller’s The Son, about an estranged couple (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern) struggling to get through to their depressive child (Zen McGrath), indicated that the films would have anything in common. Yet viewed on two consecutive days (combined with a grim lack of sleep), striking similarities spring up.
Both present a snapshot of the way teens speak a language that parents are desperate to learn the vocabulary of; of how even terrible choices, when viewed in the rearview mirror, might not inspire regret. Both also deal with mental afflictions (binge eating, depression). More specifically, both feature fathers who focus on their children’s untapped potential and ignore their wasted present. Both these men broke up their marriage and walked out on their children at a young age, which is perhaps why they view parenting as a redemption arc rather than a vocation. Pivotal moments in both films are flashbacks set in open water. One child is scared to death he won’t grow up to be like his father. The other is terrified that she will. The emotions of one film reach a fever pitch only in its last 10 minutes. The other has a climax that aims for emotion but lands on blatant manipulation instead.
Beyond these narrative parallels, however, both films find their otherwise-masterful directors out of sync with their own style. Misfire is too strong a word, but both The Whale and The Son are oddly flat, lacking the striking imagery and fully-realised worlds that mark their respective directors’ previous films.
The Son begins with attorney Peter Miller (Jackman) finding out from his former wife Kate (Laura Dern) that their son Nick (McGrath) has been skipping school. Prodded, Nick replies, “It’s life, it’s weighing me down” (an apt sentiment for this leaden screenplay). In a later scene, the camera cuts from Peter, his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and Nick dancing together in their living room, to Nick separated from the group, staring vacantly into space. The visualisation of his affliction remains external rather than internal, a dangerous strategy for a film about depression. After all, as long as Nick “looks” happy, Peter is content enough to assume he actually is.
Zeller doesn’t put us inside Nick’s head in the vivid, visually-inventive way he did with his protagonist in The Father (2020), in which dementia was represented on screen as a series of non-linear scenes, multiple actors playing the same character and sets that appeared altered whenever they reappeared. Where The Father was naturally heart-wrenching, The Son works hard to induce that emotion in the audience. Characters talk in writerly lines, describing how they feel without actually conveying it.
Glimpses of a far more tantalising movie emerge – will Nick drive a wedge between Peter and Beth, weaponising his condition to get his parents back together again? Will Peter neglect his second son in the frantic rush to attend to his first, repeating the cycle all over again? – but these ideas are tossed as soon as they’re introduced. The ending is both obvious and a truly baffling choice that cheapens what came before it.
By contrast, the end is by far the best part of The Whale, a repetitive, near-tedious drama in which an English teacher Charlie (Fraser) who knows he’s dying, reunites with his estranged daughter (a terrific Sadie Sink, playing the human version of a serrated knife). A pale 600-pound Fraser, aided by 300 pounds of prosthetics, is a far cry from the George of the Jungle (1997) muscularity he came to be associated with. The overarching theme of Aronofsky’s chamber drama is empathy, but even then, his camera can’t resist capturing Charlie’s sagging belly, the bruised folds of his back fat, and the leftover grease from his fried chicken dinner smeared onto his chin. The character suffers several indignities over the course of the film – laughing leaves him breathless. So does masturbating.
Not a single idea or image from The Whale conveys the punishing toll that an obsession can wreak on the human body in the way the rest of Aronofsky’s filmography does. It’s a bit of a letdown, given that this is a director who’s long had the propensity for jamming the jagged fragments of his visions directly into our brains – think of the closeup of a heroin needle injected into a pus-filled arm sore in Requiem For A Dream (2000) or the feathers piercing through a ballerina’s back in Black Swan (2010). This stylistic choice is gradually revealed to be part of the film’s design though – Samuel D Hunter’s screenplay wants to paint Charlie as a pitiful, despicable human being despite his weight, not because of it.
The script works overtime, shoving new themes and ideas into Charlie’s house with each character that enters and exits it. There’s infidelity, a student-teacher relationship, the cruelties of organised religion, an examination of sexuality, and the idea of spiritual redemption. Even as the dialogues between characters become infinite variations on the same subjects, they grow no closer to reaching a consensus and the cycle continues. That Charlie keeps urging his students to structure their work is telling of the very thing his life, and the film by extension, lacks. It’s only towards the end that a final meeting and a Moby Dick essay Charlie is obsessed with – from which the film derives its sly title – merge into a swell of emotion, recurring rhythmic dialogue, and some truly transcendent cross-cutting. For a while, The Whale is sublime. Everything else is just dead weight.