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Inside Darren Aronofsky’s messy movie The Whale is something wise about religious trauma

The Whale is more than the movie where Brendan Fraser wears a fat suit.

A man looks sadly off camera.
Brendan Fraser in The Whale.
Courtesy of TIFF/A24
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s no wonder Darren Aronofsky wanted to adapt The Whale, Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, for the big screen. It feels like it originated in the same brain that made Noah, The Wrestler, and Mother!: a story about regret and redemption, probing the spirit-body connection and drawing on biblical and literary myth.

So he got Hunter to write the screenplay and Brendan Fraser, who’s long been out of the public eye, to star. Fraser delivers a brilliant, gutting performance as Charlie, an online college professor who, out of great grief, has developed an eating disorder that has left him immobilized. He can’t leave his home; he can barely leave the couch, and he keeps the camera off when he teaches, afraid of his students’ gaze.

Charlie lost his partner Alan some years ago, and as The Whale progresses, we slowly realize his grief response of binge-eating is an inversion of the eating disorder that killed Alan. His late partner’s sister Liz (Hong Chau) is his closest friend, stopping by his apartment every day to check on him and bring him groceries. She works at a hospital, so she checks his slowly deteriorating health as well, and by the time the movie starts he’s showing clear signs of congestive heart failure. He’ll be dead by the end of the week if he doesn’t seek medical attention, and that’s the one thing he refuses to do.

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

The Whale is set in a very specific place: Moscow, Idaho, a city whose significance might not hit everyone the same way. Set along the state’s northern border with Washington, it’s a home both to a sizable population of Mormons and to a burgeoning movement of Christian Reconstructionists, an evangelical movement that embraces the idea, in essence, that biblical law ought to be the law of modern America. If you’ve been in conservative Christian circles, you’ve likely heard of the ringleader, Douglas Wilson, pastor of a church in Moscow, most recently famous for being blurbed on the back cover of a book about Christian nationalism published by the right-wing site Gab.

All that’s worth noting because Hunter (with, presumably, Aronofsky’s input) has updated his Obama-era play to be set during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries in Idaho. (In the background, on Charlie’s TV, we can hear Ted Cruz winning over Donald Trump by a sizable margin.) The characters don’t engage in explicit political commentary, but Hunter made another key update — changing the young missionary Thomas from Mormon to evangelical, a member of what sounds like a fairly typical congregation in town called New Life. That church and its teachings, we’re meant to understand, are part of (or perhaps the cause of) a bigger apocalyptic moment in American history.

That’s the backdrop of The Whale, but the real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. We know — everyone knows — that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining continually outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s about to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s going on beyond its walls.

As a story, The Whale is compelling. As a film, The Whale is a tad shakier. First there’s the obvious problem of putting Charlie, whose body size is viewed with repulsion by many of the film’s characters, on screen to be looked at in a culture beholden to rampant fatphobia that tends to denigrate human dignity. The distinction between a person whose body is large and a person whose body is large and failing because they’re trying to end their own life is lost on many people, and undoubtedly those people will be in the audience. The peculiar vitriol reserved for the latter, out of proportion to all kinds of other ways to harm oneself, is a pestilence, and that’s not even counting the belief that it’s okay to judge and comment upon another person’s body shape.

Worse, there are times when it’s not clear the filmmakers know the difference, particularly a sequence in which Charlie’s binging behavior is rendered with the distinctive air of a monster movie. You can’t control an audience’s reaction to a character, but you can steer it, and The Whale doesn’t always do the work. And there are some other issues, too: The score feels manipulative at times, and Sink’s performance feels curiously one-note, overwrought and hysterical, particularly next to Fraser.

Yet there is more to The Whale, which is also genuinely moving. Following the movie’s Toronto Film Festival premiere, Hunter spoke about how, growing up as a gay kid in Moscow, Idaho, he turned to food to self-medicate the loathing he learned to feel for himself, and experienced some of what Charlie experiences. This is what The Whale gets exactly right: the ways that fundamentalist religion and other legalistic cultures teach adherents to hate those whose bodies don’t fit a prescribed mold — especially themselves. That can manifest in many ways, but a common one is eating disorders, which look different on different people and garner a range of reactions, but come from the same place. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical community. I experienced this judgment too. It is visceral and real and deadly.

The other matter The Whale understands keenly is 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 wants saving both desperately and not at all. And Thomas has salvation mixed up in his head: by trying to force salvation on Charlie, he’s trying to save himself. It’s Liz who finally recognizes that nobody can save anyone — that trying to do so may mean you stop seeing them as human.

Which suggests that the whale of the title may also have something to do with the story of Jonah in the Bible who, in a famous Sunday school story, ended up in the belly of one. After God asked him to preach to a city of wicked people, Nineveh, he ran away rather than minister to them, only to find himself inside the giant creature. When he escaped, yielded, and finally made it to Nineveh, he discovered that the people listened and repented. Infuriated, he yelled at God for showing mercy; God more or less 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 one another, and we fail, because we cannot help but fail. Every one of us fails. But something in the world is still powered on the energy of the love we try to have. At the end, that might be what matters most.

The Whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival and played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on December 9, 2022.