The Whale fucking destroyed me.
Directed by Darren Aronofksy, The Whale is a drama based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, who also adapted the screenplay for the film. The story is small, taking place in a single apartment and featuring only a handful of characters. Brendan Fraser plays the titular character, a 600-lb online English teacher named Charlie, looking to re-establish a relationship with this teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Hong Chau plays Charlie’s friend Liz, Ty Simpkins plays a missionary named Thomas, and Samantha Morton plays Charlie’s ex-wife.
The story is stark on the surface, but hides significant nuance. In the past, Charlie left his wife and eight-year old daughter for one of his young male students, and now nearly ten years later his boyfriend is dead, his family estranged, and his body and health deteriorated beyond recognition. His one solace is a student’s essay on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which he keeps within reach and reads whenever his heart palpitates or he loses his breath; if he’s about to die, he wants to read it one last time. He seems resigned to this fate, but before he goes he must re-establish a relationship with Ellie.
Aronofsky begins the film with a stroke of brilliance: we’re treated to the dreaded Zoom screen, a virtual classroom full of square images of Charlie’s students in a grid. At the middle is a black screen that says, “Instructor”. As Charlie delivers some instruction to the class and apologizes for his broken camera, we zoom in on his black square until it eventually fills the entire screen, which we now realize is in a 4:3 aspect ratio. We cut and are in Charlies dark, dank apartment, littered with discarded food containers. He’s masturbating to gay porn on the same computer he uses for his classes, but before he can climax he experiences severe chest pain and is only saved when Thomas the missionary interrupts him and reads the Moby Dick essay.
This opening sequence establishes everything, though we can’t understand that yet. There’s Charlie’s shame that leads to him hiding his appearance from his class and the reveal of his homosexuality through an instrument that is related to his role as a teacher. The 4:3 aspect ratio coupled with Charlie’s small apartment conveys an incredible sense of confinement; at times bordering on claustrophobia. Later on, when he drops a key, we experience the utter helplessness he must feel on a daily basis, as he is unable to bend over and pick up objects on the floor without the aid of his grabber. His inability to experience sexual gratification, even at this basal level, is the first of many examples of life being closed off to him.
There are two other major characters: Charlie’s best friend Liz and his estranged daughter Ellie. Liz is a nurse, and takes care of Charlie off-the-clock with borrowed medical supplies. She finds that he is in a state of extreme hypertension, and likely experienced a heart attack. He needs to go to the hospital, but without any insurance or money, he dismisses her. Finally, Charlie is able to re-establish contact with Ellie, who is now an angsty teenager failing English. Charlie believes in her, and offers her two things: assistance with her assignments, and over 100 thousand dollars that he’s saved for her. Hurling acerbic insults at him over his weight and sexuality, she agrees to return – for the money.
The Whale is a fairly simple story, even if it unorthodox. But, the themes that it deals with are fundamental: love, forgiveness, and the search for meaning in a cold universe. All of the major events of the story revolve around a particular religious sect and the role that this religion has played in each of the characters’ lives (and the pressures that come along with that). Charlie’s sexual awakening caused the rift in his family, revealing how love can be both a force for sublime exaltation and family-wrecking, all-consuming torture. There are even key elements revolving around despondency, suicide, and what happens when someone loses the one value for which they abandoned everything else. But perhaps the most poignant message that the film has is about how Charlie loves his daughter Ellie and believes in her, putting himself through Hell to plead for her forgiveness. He left her behind when he fell in love with one of his students, but he’s forever ashamed of it.
The climactic scene is one for the ages; we’re treated to a recital of Charlie’s favorite essay by his daughter. He pleads for her to forgive him and she pleads for him to get help, to try to go on living. But he’s beyond that now, he knows that his daughter loves him, and that she’s going to be a good person. For once, he’s done something right.
This is beautiful work, from the style of the cinematography to the taut screenplay, from the astonishing performances to the timeless themes. I could wax aesthetic about the myriad accolades that The Whale deserves, but perhaps the best that I can say of it is that it made me so happy to be alive and be loved that I couldn’t help but bawl my eyes out for an hour.
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