2022 may be over but I am still thinking about the most emotionally impactful movie of the past year, which deserves its own review and analysis. Likely to be nominated for a few Academy Awards at the least an Oscar for Best Actor nomination for Brendan Fraser, ‘The Whale’ is a powerful film about a man’s desire to try to right past wrongs in some way before it is too late. ‘The Whale’, directed by director Darren Aronofsky shows us how low someone can go when things go wrong in life but also how our lowest lows can also bring out the best of us when it is most important.
Aronofsky’s filmography from ‘Requiem for a Dream’ to ‘The Wrestler’ to ‘Black Swan’ to ‘The Foundation’ to now ‘The Whale’ all deal with flawed characters looking to right past wrongs or to find redemption in the most meaningful way(s) before they are past the point of no return. Aronofsky so brilliantly can capture psychological drama and tension in each sense in his movies that by the end, you’re so emotionally affected by it all that it can be hard to wrap your head around what you just watched. As a director, he is excellent at painting a picture of a person or people in distress and how while they may have had good intentions, they are almost too far gone to seek redemption or a new start.
Different from Aronofsky’s past films, ‘The Whale’ is adapted from a play of the same name dating back to 2012 so the screenplay that is written and the way the film is set up is exactly how a play would be seen on the big screen. There are few characters, the plot does not get too murky or complicated, and the setting remains the same largely throughout the whole film.
Film critics today may dismiss this film as lacking scale and scope in its ambition, but I was drawn to how beautifully it portrays what could be real people living real lives. ‘The Whale’ may be a film and fiction but it likely portrays real situations and real tragedies that some people unfortunately come to pass in their life. The film deals with multiple real world issues affecting people from obesity to alcoholism to lost loves to broken up families that most people in life can see how that can throw someone’s life off a cliff and make it almost impossible to recover.
‘The Whale’, as the title makes clear is about a severely obese man named Charlie who weighs around 600 pounds and suffers from multiple health issues because of his weight issue. He is estranged from his teenage daughter, separated from his alcoholic wife, and unable to turn the video screen as an online English professor because of his weight condition that may affect how his students see him. His only interaction is with his friend, Liz, who is also a nurse who comes to take care of Charlie especially with his multiple health issues causing him to be near death and at risk of heart failure.
Charlie has become a tragic figure in that he only has Liz left in his life after suffering the loss of the man who he fell in love with. Because of that love, he sacrificed his marriage with his previous wife and his relationship with his daughter for. After the affair he had with his student, Alan, who is also the brother of Liz, for whom she was adopted by a family and her father who was a pastor in the New Life Church. Liz was able to escape the church’s cultish tendencies but Alan’s possible guilt from being disowned by the Church and perhaps his family as well for his homosexuality and relationship with Charlie caused him to end his own life.
This terrible series of events punished Charlie and his eating condition after the death of Alan exacerbated his obesity and caused him major depression and an inability to form relationships with others beyond his caretaker and friend, Liz. Charlie is not looking for any pardoning of ‘sins’ from God or the Church that disowned Alan but rather the sole forgiveness of his daughter for whom he last saw when she was eight years old. Ellie is not a child anymore but is a rebellious and sullen teenager who misses her father and lashes out at her mother, who deals with her problems by downing a bottle of liquor, rather than raising her daughter to be better. Charlie is no saint in the matter in that he did commit adultery with Alan and led him to neglect his daughter, Ellie, and to push his wife away as well.
He never made amends for having caused them both grief and pain with his impulsive decision. His love for Alan eclipsed his love for his daughter, which he struggles in the film to get back. When the New Life Church’s doctrine and his family’s discontent with Alan’s sexuality, Alan’s suicide caused Charlie to spiral further to eat uncontrollably and to negate his relationships even more by becoming a total recluse who cannot even leave the house because of his body weight and inability to walk or drive a car.
‘The Whale’ also highlights how Charlie is not looking for pity from others or for forgiveness. He knows how much his life has gotten out of hand, but he is hoping to do ‘one thing in his life’ right before it’s too late for him. He believes that while his daughter acts out and despises what he has done, that there is still hope for her and that can she achieve her potential but to more importantly to ‘be a good person.’ It may be too late for Charlie to turn it around in life much to Liz’s, his wife’s, and even Ellie’s disappointment, but Charlie knows that redemption is possible for each of them and that even if he is not there, he will try to leave money for his daughter to have a future, or to tell his wife that he is regretful for him leaving them for his affair, and that he apologizes to Liz for what he has done to himself with the loss of her adopted brother that has strained their friendship in the aftermath.
Charlie does not want to be saved by God or religion or from himself but he wants to know that his life through the birth of his daughter is one thing that he got right in life and that while he wasn’t there for her before when she needed him, he can try to make amends before he leaves the world, and to encourage her to be better than he was, to be better off in life, and to be kind to others. He may have lost hope for himself, but he has never lost hope for his daughter.
Similar to how Charlie encourages his English students to be honest with their written essays, he tries to be honest with Ellie in why he did what he did, how he could have been a better husband to his wife, Mary, and how he let Liz down after the tragic death of Alan. Not everyone can be this honest, but Charlie has nothing left to lose, nothing much to gain, and with not a lot of life ahead of him except imminent death due to his body’s condition.
Despite all the concurring factors, Charlie is trying to regain his humanity and his family back as much as he can recoup after it had been lost even if he has become ‘The Whale’. While he may be misunderstood and loathed like the whale in the book Moby Dick by Herman Melville, he is not beyond redeeming himself in the eyes of others and providing some closure for himself in a life that had gone so far astray yet for which he had also been able to give something out of love back to the world to live on in the form of his daughter, Ellie.