‘The Whale’ – Film Review and Analysis

“‘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.”

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.  

‘Everything In Its Right Place’ (A Video Retrospective)

It’s hard to really love most music videos today which tend to be shallow and lacking in any original thought. During past decades leading up to the 2000’s, it seems like actual effort and work was put into music videos of songs in order to get on MTV but also to highlight the themes of the song as well as the entire album. There are a number of my favorite artists who produce great music videos including Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, U2, Oasis, Dave Matthews Band, etc.

However, MTV and official music videos are not what they used to be. In an age of instant gratification and live concerts being streamed of the songs you love, it’s hard to appreciate music videos as being part of an increasingly crowded creative marketplace. While official music videos may be dying, creative videos and covers of songs from our favorite artists seem to be on the rise. Considering that music videos are usually for hit singles of certain songs and not for entire albums, there has started to be a movement towards producing independent music videos for songs that never received the official ‘music video’ song treatment.

The rise of YouTube and other video platforms has allowed creative people who are fans of good music to produce their own music videos. While they started out as being kind of cliché or very amateur, they are now becoming very professional and also very related to the lyrics of the song in question. I saw a particular music video of a favorite song of mine featured on YouTube a couple of weeks ago. The song is ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ by Radiohead and it is an excellent song by my favorite band but the one thing that this song never had was its own brilliant music video to go with it.

Because of YouTube, the creative skills of a fan named ‘Capitao Ahab’, which is a pretty fun name in its own right, although I believe the original video creator’s name is Joschka Laukeninks who created it and titled it ‘BACKSTORY.’ It is a now an unofficial music video on the popular video platform that is really well done and professionally shot that has received almost two million views. A video like this would not have existed ten years ago but luckily it does. Part of the reason why this music video is so impactful is that it works so well with the content of this particular Radiohead song.

‘Everything in Its Right Place’ like many of Radiohead’s songs are open to interpretation but it is soothing with its use of synthesizers, digitally manipulated voices, and haunting electronic sounds that sound comforting when you have your headphones on at full blast. The lyric itself of ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ focuses on how to maintain your composure and your levelheadedness as you go through life. The fan music video’s storyline of a baby becoming a boy, a man, and then an elderly man highlights the ups and downs of life and how there are ‘two colors in my head.’

The ‘two colors’ could be interpreted as the good and the bad that you will go through as you go through life’s uncertain and mysterious waters. In particular, the song begins with the oft-repeated lyric of ‘Kid A’, the title of Radiohead’s 2000 album and expresses the experiences of a ‘boy’ as he is born, grows up, matures, and eventually dies. “Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon.” Is also a lyric up to the fan’s interpretation but it implies that life can be sour as well as sweet and that you will have to taste and swallow the bitterness of life if you want to enjoy the sweet part of the fruit.

The music video begins on a hopeful note as a baby boy gains his first steps as he walks through his parents’ house. The sweetness of his childhood is referenced with meeting animals for the first time, having his 6th birthday, going to the beach, and experiencing pure joy at that age. Childhood innocence does not last forever so the boy ends up experiencing his first pains in life including the accidental burning down of his house, fights between his mother and his father, the divorce and exit of his mother from his life, pressures from his father to succeed as he ages into being a teenager.

Learning in school, riding his bicycle, summer days at the swimming pool are some of the joys of teenage life including his first experiences with girls as well with drugs and late nights with friends. Still though, the joys of discovery and youth are balanced out by his struggles with partying too much, getting into rights, being angry at the world and dealing with bad breakups. In one part of the video, the teenager emerges from the pool as a young man ready to take on the world in his 20’s. He thinks his partying days and life as a Bachelor will last forever until he stares at the woman of his dreams on New Year’s Eve and she stares back signaling a new relationship that will change his life.

They date, travel, live together, and the young man eventually proposes to the woman of his dreams. As the video speeds up, so does the aging and life of the man as he gets married, celebrates the birth of his child, and gets ready for middle-aged challenges and prospects. Moving into a house as newlyweds, getting a better job, moving up the corporate ladder, using his new car, traveling for work, going to important meetings, and shuffling along while growing a beard signifies how fast life speeds up the older you become. Sometimes, you’re running so fast that you can’t keep track of who or what you are. In the video, the man still remembers the little blissful moments of carrying his child with his beloved wife, family dinners, and trying to balance work and family until tragedy suddenly strikes.

The hardest part of life is unforeseen tragedies and we hope and pray to never experience any to happen, but this man has the tragic occurrence of seeing his wife and child running towards him across the street only to be hit by a bus and to be taken off life support. The song’s crescendo builds up as the man struggles through grief, longing, and how to move on when he knows he can’t but has to anyway. After the tragedy, what once was promising is now dull and at once he was fast to move through the world, he staggers slowly through it wondering what it is all worth and why keep going? How can one fill the void in their own heart when it was taken out of them and cannot be put back?

We see the man continue with his work, entertaining clients, meeting a new woman and getting married again but there is the lingering sense that it is not what he envisioned his life to be. He can have a child with her, but it won’t be the same as his first true love or bring back his first child. Trying to fill the void with an extramarital affair, fighting with his new wife, jogging and running to keep moving forward to futilely escape from one’s own pre-destined aging are all ways of coping both unhealthily and healthily as you go through middle age to becoming elderly in your later life.

Maybe if he stops running or walking or jogging, he will have to face his own eventual demise and departure from this world or face his memories of losing loved ones or losing his mother. The aged man with gray hairs continues to work, to exercise, to keep up his health by going to the doctor and trying to save his marriage. Some of these battles he will win, and some he will lose although we will never know from such a short video. Eventually, the man is elderly and looking back on his life from his bed and looks to be alone in the world.

However, he does not remember the tragedies that befell him as we all must endure in life sometimes. Instead, he remembers the first time he went to dance at a club, the way he looked at his firstborn child, hugging his beloved first wife, and how she stared at him lovingly on New Year’s Eve and how she stared at him at their wedding and when she gave birth to their child. He remembers the tragedy too but remembers those special moments that made his life truly worth living. You are left wondering after watching this four-minute video of a complicated, yet powerful life filled with tragedy and joy whether it was all worth it for the man. Would he do it again if he knew what was to happen in the future?

If we all knew what was to happen in the future until the end of our days, would we all do it again from the beginning? Would it be worth it even if there is pain, tragedy, and death? Would it be worth the love, joy, and pleasure that we experience as human beings as well? It really is out of our control, but this music video does an excellent job of pondering life’s deepest questions in only four minutes and only with the wistful yet dreamy lyrics of Thom Yorke from Radiohead creating a powerful combination of a great song and a great video. It may not be an original music video from Radiohead but whoever created it did a great job of getting a powerful message across to this 2-million strong audience on life, love, and loss.

If you would like to watch the music video on ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, you can find it here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnfPaaMR6Qc

‘BACKSTORY’ Full Video on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/245687147

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