The Whale: Darren Aronofsky’s Movie Is Messy, But Wise About Religious Trauma
No wonder Darren Aronofsky wanted to adapt The whale, a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, for the big screen. It’s like it came from the same brain that made Noah, the wrestler, and Mother!: a story about regret and redemption, probing the mind-body connection and drawing on biblical and literary myth.
So he asked Hunter to write the screenplay and Brendan Fraser, who has long been overlooked by the public, to star. Fraser delivers a brilliant and heartbreaking performance as Charlie, an online college professor who, through great grief, developed an eating disorder that left him immobilized. He cannot leave his house; he can barely get off the sofa and he keeps the camera off when he teaches, fearing the gaze of his students.
Charlie lost his partner Alan a few years ago, and as The whale progresses, we slowly realize that his binge-eating grief reaction is a reversal of the eating disorder that killed Alan. His late partner’s sister, Liz (Hong Chau), is his closest friend, stopping by his apartment daily to check on him and bring him groceries. She works in a hospital, so she also checks on his slowly deteriorating health, and as the film begins, he shows clear signs of congestive heart failure. He’ll be dead by the end of the week if he doesn’t see a doctor, and that’s the only thing he refuses to do.
Early in the film, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) knocks on Charlie’s door, wanting to evangelize Charlie, who kindly informs him that he knows the Bible inside and out. He’s not the only unexpected guest: Soon, Ellie (Sadie Sink) shows up, much to Charlie’s surprise; it’s his teenage daughter, brooding and rebellious and about to be expelled from school, and he hasn’t really seen her since he and her mother separated years earlier. His arrival feels like a moment of redemption. Charlie feels like he’s screwed up everything in his life, but maybe now, in his final days, he can do something good and save himself.
The whale takes place in a very specific place: Moscow, Idaho, a city whose importance may not affect everyone in the same way. Located along the state’s northern border with Washington, it is a home both to a large population of Mormons and to a nascent movement of Christian Reconstructionists, an evangelical movement that embraces the idea, in essence, that biblical law should be the law of modern America. . If you’ve been in conservative Christian circles, you’ve probably heard of the ringleader, Douglas Wilson, pastor of a church in Moscow, most recently famous for be blurred on the back cover of a book on Christian nationalism published by the right-wing site Gab.
This is all worth noting because Hunter (with, presumably, input from Aronofsky) has updated his Obama-era piece that will take place in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries in Idaho. (In the background, on Charlie’s TV, we can hear Ted Cruz winning over Donald Trump by a considerable margin.) The characters don’t engage in explicit political commentary, but Hunter made another key update – changing young missionary Thomas from Mormon to evangelical, a member of what looks like a fairly typical city congregation called New Life. This church and its teachings, we are supposed to understand, are part of (or perhaps the cause of) a greater apocalyptic moment in American history.
It is the backdrop of The whale, but the real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. We know – everyone knows – that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s continuously raining outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s going to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s happening beyond its walls.
like a story, The whale is convincing. As a movie, The whale is a little more fragile. First is the obvious problem of putting Charlie, whose body size is viewed with revulsion by many of the film’s characters, on screen to be watched in a culture addicted to the rampant fatphobia that tends to denigrate human dignity. . The distinction between someone whose body is fat and someone whose body is fat and failing because they are trying to end their life is lost on many people, and no doubt those people will be in the audience. The particular vitriol reserved for the latter, out of all proportion to all sorts of other ways of harming oneself, is a plague, and that does not even count the belief that it is okay to judge and comment on body shape. from another person.
Worse, there are times when it’s not clear the filmmakers know the difference, especially a sequence in which Charlie’s binging behavior is rendered with the distinctive air of a monster movie. You can’t control an audience’s reaction to a character, but you can direct it, and The whale doesn’t always do the job. And there are other issues, too: the score feels manipulative at times, and Sink’s performance seems oddly monotonous, overworked and hysterical, especially next to Fraser.
Yet there is more to The whale, which is also genuinely moving. After the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Hunter explained how, growing up as a gay kid in Moscow, Idaho, he turned to food as a self-medicating disgust that he learned to feel for himself and experienced some of what Charlie is experiencing. What’s this The whale becomes quite right: the way fundamentalist religion and other legalistic cultures teach adherents to hate those whose bodies do not fit a prescribed mold – especially themselves. It can manifest in many ways, but one of the most common is eating disorders, which look different in different people and elicit a range of reactions, but come from the same place. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical community. I also experienced this judgment. It’s visceral, real and deadly.
The other subject The whale fully understand is that our response to this pressure is simply to try to save each other, or ourselves. Charlie laments that he couldn’t save Alan. Liz wants to save Charlie. Ellie wants to save both desperately and not at all. And Thomas has salvation mixed up in his head: by trying to force salvation on Charlie, he’s trying to save himself. It’s Liz finally acknowledging that no one can save anyone – that trying to do so can mean you stop seeing them as humans.
Which suggests that the title whale may also have something to do with the Bible story of Jonah who, in a famous Sunday School story, ended up in the womb of one. After God asked him to preach to a city of wicked people, Nineveh, he fled rather than serve them, only to find himself inside the giant creature. When he escaped, gave in, and finally arrived in Nineveh, he found that the people were listening and repenting. Furious, he cried out to God for showing mercy; God more or less told him to shut up and let God decide who will be saved. It’s none of his business. His job is to live.
And in its enigmatic ending, I think, The whale suggests the same. We try to save each other, and we fail, because we can’t help failing. Each of us fails. But something in the world is still fueled by the energy of love that we are trying to have. In the end, this is perhaps what matters most.
The whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on December 9, 2022.