Think of the riveting Blackfish as the psychological portrait of a killer — that happens to be a whale.
The documentary opens with an exchange in which a 911 operator asks, "A whale just ate one of your trainers?" and someone replies, "That is correct."
From there, it shifts to footage of the killer whale, Tilikum, and interviews with his former trainers, who collectively create a portrait of poor communication and shockingly cruel training techniques. It is that mistreatment, the movie argues, that led to Tilikum killing three people in three separate attacks.
Blackfish is almost sickeningly suspenseful, particularly in the difficult-to-watch footage of Tilikum cavorting with trainers we know are about to be killed.
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For the most part, the film proceeds chronologically, showing how Tilikum moved from one aquarium to another under mysterious circumstances — in the same way child-abusing priests have sometimes been quietly transferred from parish to parish — and how, as his life became more constricted, he began to lash out at the only creatures he had access to: his trainers.
It's a one-sided film — representatives at Sea World, where Tilikum lives today, declined to comment — but it argues convincingly that Tilikum, like other animals, should not be treated as if he were put on Earth to entertain humans. That's the conclusion of a group of former trainers, who speak almost as one in the film.
Not that they are blameless. In fact, my one criticism of Blackfish is that it is too easy on the trainers, each of whom claims to have known nothing of Tilikum's background.
For one thing, even though Tilikum's behavior dates back to before the Internet, there were libraries and other methods of getting information they should have used.
For another, what part of "killer whale" did they not understand?
PG-13 for brief language and violent images. Magnolia Pictures. 1:23. Kentucky.