The Whale: Darren Aronofsky’s film is messy but clever in dealing with religious trauma

No wonder Darren Aronofsky wanted to fit in The whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, for the big screen. It feels like it came from the same brain that made it Noah, the wrestler, and Mother!: a story of repentance and redemption exploring the connection between mind and body, drawing on biblical and literary myths.

So he got Hunter to write the screenplay and Brendan Fraser, long gone from public view, to star. Fraser gives a brilliant, challenging performance as Charlie, an online college professor who, out of great grief, has developed an eating disorder that has left him immobilized. He cannot leave his home; he can hardly leave the couch, and he skips the camera when he teaches for fear of being stared at by his students.

Charlie lost his partner Alan a few years ago and all The whale As we make progress, we begin to realize that his grief response to binge eating is a reversal of the eating disorder that killed Alan. The sister of his late partner Liz (Hong Chau) is his closest friend who stops by his apartment every day to check on him and bring him groceries. She works in a hospital, so she’s also checking on his slowly deteriorating health, and by the time the film begins, he’s showing clear signs of congenital heart failure. By the end of the week he’ll be dead if he doesn’t see a doctor, and that’s the only thing he refuses.

At the beginning of the film, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) knocks on Charlie’s door to evangelize Charlie, who kindly informs him that he knows the Bible inside and out. He’s not the only unexpected guest: Ellie (Sadie Sink) soon shows up, much to Charlie’s surprise; she’s his teenage daughter, grumpy and rebellious and about to be kicked out of school, and he hasn’t really seen her since he and her mother broke up years ago. Her arrival seems like a moment of salvation. Charlie feels like he’s screwed up everything in his life, but maybe now, in his final days, he can do something right and save himself.

The whale takes place in a very specific place: Moscow, Idaho, a city whose importance may not apply to everyone in the same way. Located on the state’s northern border with Washington, it is home to both a sizable population of Mormons and a burgeoning movement of Christian Reconstructionists, an evangelical movement essentially espousing the idea that biblical law should be the law of modern America. If you’ve been in conservative Christian circles, you’ve probably heard of ringleader Douglas Wilson, pastor of a Moscow church, most recently known for to be smudged on the back of a book on Christian nationalism, published by right-wing Gab.

All of this is worth noting because Hunter (presumably with Aronofsky’s input) updated his Obama-era play set in Idaho during the 2016 GOP presidential primary. (In the background, on Charlie’s TV, we can hear Ted Cruz defeating Donald Trump by a sizable margin.) The characters don’t engage in explicit political commentary, but Hunter made another important update — he introduced young missionary Thomas from Mormon converted to evangelical, a member of a fairly typical church in town called New Life. This church and its teachings that we are asked to understand are part of (or perhaps the cause of) a larger apocalyptic moment in American history.

This is the background of The whale, but the real apocalypse takes place at Charlie’s house, at least if we mean by ‘apocalypse’ a moment of revelation. We know – everyone knows – that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining non-stop outside, like a flood. Charlie is obsessed with an essay that he keeps reading about Moby Dick, an apocalyptic book if ever there was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There is an atmosphere of fear, both about what will happen in Charlie’s house and what is going on behind its walls.

as story, The whale is convincing. as a movie, The whale is a bit shaky. First, there’s the apparent problem of getting Charlie, whose physique is viewed with disgust by many of the film’s characters, onto screen to be viewed in a culture beholden to a rampant fat phobia that tends to denigrate human dignity . The distinction between a person whose body is big and a person whose body is big and failing because they are trying to end their own life is lost on many people, and no doubt those people will be in the audience. The peculiar vitriol reserved for the latter, out of proportion to all other forms of self-harm, is a plague, and that doesn’t even count for believing it’s okay to judge and comment on another person’s body shape.

Worse, there are times when it’s not clear the filmmakers know the difference, particularly in a sequence that portrays Charlie’s binge eating with the distinctive atmosphere of a monster movie. You can’t control an audience’s reaction to a character, but you can control it, and The whale doesn’t always do the job. And there are a few other problems: the score feels manipulative at times, and Sink’s performance feels oddly repetitive, overwrought, and hysterical, especially next to Fraser.

But there is still more to do The whale, that’s really moving too. After the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Hunter spoke about how, growing up as a gay boy in Moscow, Idaho, he turned to food to self-manage the disgust he was learning to feel for himself , and experienced some of what Charlie experienced. That’s what The whale spot on: the way fundamentalist religion and other legalist cultures teach their followers to hate those whose bodies don’t fit a prescribed mold—especially themselves. This can manifest itself in many ways, but a common one is eating disorders , which look different in different people and evoke a range of reactions, but have the same origin. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical church. I also experienced this judgement. It’s visceral and real and deadly.

The other thing The whale clearly understands that our response to this pressure is simply to try to save one another or ourselves. Charlie laments that he couldn’t save Alan. Liz wants to save Charlie. Ellie is both desperate and not wanting to save at all. And Thomas has redemption on his mind: by trying to force redemption on Charlie, he’s trying to save himself. It’s Liz who finally realizes that no one can save anyone – that trying to do so could mean you stop seeing them as people.

Suggesting that the whale of the title might also have something to do with the Bible story of Jonah ending up in the stomach of a famous Sunday school story. After God asked him to preach to a city full of wicked people, Nineveh, instead of serving them he ran away, only to find himself in the giant creature. When he escaped, gave in, and finally made it to Nineveh, he discovered that the people were listening and repenting. He cried out in anger at God for showing mercy; God sort of told him to shut up and let God decide who gets 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 but fail. Each of us fails. But something in the world is still fueled by the energy of the love we’re trying to have. In the end, that is perhaps the most important thing.

The whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will hit theaters on December 9, 2022.

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