The Whale has a small ensemble of characters to draw from, but everybody is searching for something. Within that search is an insatiable need to save others from the wrongs they seem. It’s human nature for us to be helpful (well, I hope). If somebody is struggling, you offer encouragement and an ear to listen. If a person needs money for a bite to eat, you offer it to them if you can. We all believe that it’s a reciprocal principle of being together in this existence. However, that same savior complex can be detrimental – especially when it impedes free will. Some people don’t want to be saved, and it’s hard to grasp when you’re on the other side of perceived, desired existence.
At the center of this is Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who has fully conceded that his life is ending due to the depression-based binge eating over the loss of his lover, Allan. While he believes there’s no hope for him, Charlie tries to project the need for honesty and omit an almost delusional sense of positivity. First, with his English students, he behests them to write something real beyond the assignments. Then again, with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). She detests his existence and makes her presence with him tied to transaction convenience.
I mean, the man did leave her when she was eight. But Charlie is willing to overlook her warts and sacrifice himself and money, hoping she will be kind. This is based on the notion of how her eighth-grade essay criticizes Herman Mellville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick. It’s a zen-like calming presence to him. Does Ellie eventually get over the justified anger she feels? That’s up to interpretation, considering her father was unable to overcome his grief. Interestingly, director Darren Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter offer Charlie up to the mantle of self-sacrifice when you consider the other two main characters in The Whale.
Liz (Hong Chau), like Charlie, continues to mourn the loss of Allan (her adopted brother), but from a different perspective. She’s Charlie’s main confidant, and her nurse gives her insight into his condition that no others have. Liz is also one of his main enablers regarding his food cravings. There are points where she angrily lashes out at Charlie for not seeking medical attention for his condition, but then, there’s an almost eerie tranquility that falls over her. In this aspect, Liz has latched on to the notion that Charlie only has a week to live. Thus, she tries to make things more comfortable for him. Perhaps the best way to intervene is to let them take their natural course. Charlie and Ellie are the ones to have to make choices to change their inner feelings.
Lastly, there’s Thomas (Ty Simpkins), the missionary with a shady past and introduces himself to Charlie under false pretenses. The only one to uncover his facade is Ellie – even with that, Thomas runs with that to center around his perceived mission. By any means necessary, he will save Charlie through the word of religion. Charlie and Thomas share the tint of rose-colored glasses that are not based on reality. Thomas is not trying to fight for Charlie out of the goodness of his heart – it’s rooted in an almost sinister undercurrent of fatphobia and homophobia. Thomas doesn’t so much want Charlie to get better for his life to improve – only to correct the “sin” that’s happened. This is an example of a savior complex gone completely wrong and someone using the power of goodwill as an unwieldy tool of judgment. The constraints religion operates within can make these decisions cloudy.
Charlie himself is already feeling the prickly and deeply burrowed agony of the pre-conceived notion – so much that he sees his life building to doing one thing right. Is this film telling everyone not to be helpful to their fellow man? No, that’s not the case. However, you have to have a willing participant in the other person. Sometimes resolve can’t be transferred, and the things we project onto others we deem helpless are worse than the affliction itself.