Tucked away in a second-story apartment in Idaho is a man named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), and the audience's first instance of him is a sight of total darkness. The camera focuses on a computer screen filled with online students listening to Charlie talk about truthfulness and authenticity, going over an English assignment. However, the irony is that Charlie's camera is off, and the profound nature of how he takes on being a composition teacher cannot cover up the sadness of his reality.
Darren Aronofsky's The Whale orbits around a man whose life that's been scorched by grief — which manifests both physically and spiritually. Charlie lives alone, still trying to reason with the tragic loss of his lover Allen. In the wake of this prolonged mourning, Charlie left behind his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) for this other life. Essentially, this apartment has become a tomb where Charlie has used food as a coping mechanism.
From our understanding, his situation has become very dire — Charlie has grown to 600 lbs, experiences heart attacks often, and has high enough blood pressure to signal congestive heart failure. Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter (the same writer of the stage play the film is based on) reside in telling this story through each passing day. This journey takes the audience and characters through a multitude of conflicting emotions — some ring as profound, and others may feel exploitative.
The Whale’s setting is more akin to a stage play as mostly everything takes place within a two-bedroom apartment. Charlie has visitors throughout the film who come into his life either as ghosts of his past or of a glimpse of the future he will more than likely not be a part of. A religious missionary from New Life church, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), first meets Charlie in an awkward situation. However, this turns into an all-out effort Thomas takes upon himself to drive Charlie to salvation. Liz (Hong Chau) doubles as a caretaker to Charlie and his best friend — who sadly sees the end coming, but weirdly enables him with various food items.
With previous films like The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky has dealt with the fallen heroine/hero archetype before. The Whale makes it clear that it doesn’t believe Charlie is a good person. He can easily go to the doctor and chooses not to — putting the remaining people who love him through undo stress and sadness. There’s a level of selfishness to his last mission, but Fraser approaches the role with love and tenderness that you can buy into. This is a man who is determined to try to right some of the wrongs of his past (even if this is the worse way to go about them). This theme is most personified when Ellie (begrudgingly) comes to visit.
Charlie is determined to see the best in his troubled teenage daughter, but Ellie has none of it. She’s unblushingly cruel to him — making fun of his condition, being short in conversation, and taking pictures of Charlie only to post online later. The years of hurt Ellie acquired due to her father leaving clouded her worldview. However, no matter how hardened she tries to be with Charlie, his unshakable composure to see the beauty in her slowly disarms her over time. Fraser and Sink play off each other well, even if Ellie is not as well-defined as a character like Liz.
Throughout this character study, there’s an exploration of prolonged emotional grief. When it gets to the physical, the lines get a bit muddy. Charlie is an obese man with many health issues that we are well aware of. His playful interactions with Liz about his condition aren’t rooted in a mean spirit. Some care is thrown out the window when physical afflictions are shown. It gets uncomfortable seeing Charlie eating everything in his apartment, paired with a musical score from Rob Simonsen, which makes him out to be more monster than man.
As The Whale continues, any fit of laughter or happiness Charlie has comes with a coughing fit or heart palpitations. This man is already under a mountain of life’s hardships, confined to a place that has skeletons of his “better” life present. Sticking that knife further makes it feel like you want to revel in this condition, not give a proper voice. Ultimately, this story has a lot to say about the role of religion, the sometimes hypocritical nature it carries, homophobia, and the legacies we leave behind — among other things. It all comes down to Charlie’s desire to see the beauty in the simple things.
An ongoing motif in the film is when Charlie comes under physical duress; he reads this essay denouncing Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick. (Charlie claims it’s the best thing he’s ever read for one reason). The Whale boasts great performances that show complexity in each person it examines — even if it doesn’t have time to pair down its ambiguous nature.