By Brandon Kratkoczki
I’ve been waiting all of Heartland 2017 for something to hit me the way The Mad Whale hit me. Don’t get me wrong, there have been several films over the course of the festival that I have really enjoyed. Heartland is a wonderful festival filled with inspirational stories and engaging narratives, but I was waiting for a sucker punch. I was waiting for something to knock me backwards, something that would truly impress and engage me on a deep level. The Mad Whale did just that. It’s a depraved, dark, compelling journey into human desire and sanity, as well as a testament to female courage and friendship against unconventional and difficult situations. If it wasn’t for The Florida Project, this would have been the film of the festival for me.
This film takes on an extremely unconventional story (at least for anyone who hasn’t seen Marat/Sade, but I’m not going to bore this film website with obscure thespian talk). The premise: in the late 1800s, a seemingly kind doctor decides to mount a theater production of Moby Dick. The twist: the cast consists entirely of women committed to an insane asylum. Our main character, Isabelle, is a woman wrongly committed to the asylum by her abusive husband. She must find a way to reintegrate into society and escape the asylum while at the same time navigating the difficulties of being cast in the leading role of the play. What’s truly miraculous, though, is the way that this film parallels the story of Moby Dick itself. I certainly won’t go into any spoilers in that regard, but needless to say, this film engages the original text in an interesting, provocative way.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Camilla Belle holds the film in her steady hand as Isabel, the woman wrongly placed in the asylum. She is a just, kind character facing remarkable odds, and Belle’s performance accentuates Camilla’s inner likability and vulnerability, making sure we are on her side for the entirety of the picture. Excellent too is Summer Phoenix, who portrays the tragic Beatrice. Beatrice is a raw, wounded character with an inherent likability and darkness. The character is a difficult balancing act, but I would say that Phoenix does remarkable work. Dominic Rains also does excellent work as the piece’s villain. Again, to reveal the nature of his character would be a massive spoiler and a disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But rest assured, Rains masterfully handles every twist and turn of this character. He’s one of the best screen villains in recent memory.
What I really want to emphasize in this review is just how depraved this film is. This is certainly the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen at Heartland. This film does not shy away from the harsher realities of the time, especially in how we treated the mentally ill and women at large. There are various scenes in which these groups of people are brutalized on screen, including some very disturbing scenes of bizarre medical procedures and even torture. These scenes are upsetting, yet completely necessary for this piece. They allow the audience to fully grasp the dire nature of these women’s situation. Their depictions inspire a gut reaction that would not have been achieved by implication or by simply cutting away.
What this film is ultimately about is perseverance. Even through all of the most shocking scenes in the film (one involving hasty blood transfusions), this is finally a story about these women overcoming an oppressive system from which they cannot escape on their own. I was ultimately inspired by the journey that these women go through during the film, and felt myself becoming extremely emotionally involved with the trials and errors of every single one of them. It is a testament to this film’s power that, even though it is the darkest film I’ve ever seen at this festival, it is ultimately one of the most inspiring.
If I had any minor complaints about this film, it would be that a few lines are perhaps on the nose, and that there are a few moments of symbolism that are a touch obvious. This can all be written off, though. I’m usually not one to qualify my criticism, but consider this: one of the best films I’ve ever seen at Heartland was entirely made by students. That’s right: film students at USC made this beautifully constructed, horrifying feature with the assistance of James Franco (who briefly appears in the film). This is stunning student work, and it’s certainly the best student film I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know that fact going into the film’s Q&A, and when the head writer of the film informed us of that, I audibly gasped. The USC students who put this together deserve all the credit in the world.
The Mad Whale met and exceeded every expectation I had for it. It is an intense, engaging feature with incredible acting and construction. I doubt that the families of the students involved feel anything but absolute pride in their children’s work.