The characters who are in The Whale are all suffering from their own guilt, depression and/or grief. Aside from a flashback to a scene at a beach, the entire movie is set in an apartment in an Idaho town near an unnamed college in 2016. This helps make the audience feel they are trapped in a location that they can leave but can’t. Coming as it does two years after the Covid lockdown, I think audiences can relate more to the isolation. It focuses mainly on Charlie (Brendan Fraser in his Oscar-winning role), who has become reclusive and morbidly obese following the suicide of his boyfriend, Alan, from years earlier.
Charlie is an English and writing instructor at the college and began a relationship with Alan who was a student of his. This led to his divorce from his wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and estrangement from his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), for nine years. Charlie is about 600 pounds and still teaches via live-streaming but keeps his camera off, so his students won’t see what he looks like. He lies that his camera isn’t working but one must wonder how the college would continue to allow this unless he’s still got people at the college who care for him and his appearance might cause students to seek another instructor.
Charlie’s only companionship is Liz (Hong Chau), the adoptive brother of Alan, who is also a nurse. She’s also Charlie’s enabler as she brings by groceries and greasy fast food he shouldn’t be eating. Charlie also orders pizzas on a routine basis so much that he leaves a $20 in the mail box next to his front door and the pizza man, Dan (Sathya Sridharan) leaves it on the chair. Dan seems to be the only other contact Charlie has outside his teaching.
One day Charlie is masturbating to porn when he begins to start having heart problems. There is a knock at the door but Charlie thinks it’s Liz so he just tells the person to come in, not expecting to see Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young Christian missionary from Iowa. Charlie is able to calm down by having Thomas read some essay about Moby Dick, but calls Liz and asks Thomas to stay. Liz, even though his nurse, is worried about Charlie’s refusal to go to the hospital as his blood pressure is dangerously high. Charlie claims he doesn’t want to go into debt but secretly has about $120,000 saved up to leave to Ellie.
He contacts Ellie who lives nearby to meet him and there’s hatred as she’s angry at him for what happened. Mary has dealt with the divorce with alcohol and prescription pills. I suspects she’s also harboring some concern that her marriage to Charlie was a sham as he was cheating on her with other men. Even though she’s only in one scene, I suspect Mary may have had a drinking problem before the divorce and their marriage was already rocky. There’s also some guilt I think that the divorce may have had something to do with Alan killing himself. In the years since the divorce, Ellie has become a very rebellious, angry teenager. She’s just been suspended from school for a social media post. But she’s angry at both her parents for the way her life is. She’s right to blame them for what’s wrong to her.
And I think Charlie knows he’s mostly to blame for everything as he tries to reconnect as he is planning on eating himself to death. He refuses to spend any of his saved money on anything that could help him. This eventually angers Liz when she finds out. But Liz is also angry at Thomas who keeps coming around. Her adoptived parents were very religious. Without saying much, you get the idea that Liz was probably left orphan from the Vietnam War or the conflicts that arose in neighboring Asian countries and her parents saw her more as a way to do saving an orphaned child. Liz stopped going to church at 12 and doesn’t like any of the Thomas’ organization which is called New Life. Her father was a pastor of the same church and the Christian guilt Alan felt led him to kill himself.
Thomas, we discover, is struggling from his own guilt as Liz questions why a missionary from Iowa will be in Idado. One day he stops by as Ellie has crushed Ambien in a sandwich for Charlie that she smokes cannabis with Thomas, who says he used to smoke a lot. He lets it out that he’s stole money from New Life and hopped a bus to Idaho. Being a young man, Thomas says he felt it was more important to reach out to people rather than hand out pamphlets on street corners. I’m suspecting Thomas can’t realize that he’s been part of a religious scam to take people’s money. Thomas feels that he’s being led by God to help Charlie, who refuses to believe. Charlie is mad that Thomas believes Alan’s death was on account he was gay.
All the characters are chasing the “white whale” that is in the title. Charlie believes Ellie is the one good thing he has done which is why he’s quick to forgive her when she makes fun of him online. Charlie is also feeling guilt that even though he may have loved Mary, he really wanted to be with men. Even though Alan was his student and younger, he claims they never got serious until after he was out of his course. Like a lot of gay men, he was living a lie and thought his life would be better after coming out, but it’s only gotten worse.
Part of the reason Liz keeps enabling Charlie and refusing to call 911 when his health is dangerous is she’s a nurturer. Because of his size, Charlie would definitely be placed in a hospital where they can monitor his diet. The connection she has with Charlie brings her closer to Alan. But like Thomas, she’s giving Charlie the wrong type of help. Good-natured people sometimes do the bad things they are doing the right thing for others. Charlie’s apartment is on the second floor meaning even if he wanted to, he couldn’t go farther than his front porch. Even after she gets mad at Charlie for refusing to go to the hospital as his blood pressure is high, she still gets him fried chicken to eat.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his own play, there’s been a lot of controversy over the use of Fraser in a fat suit with make-up to make him appear bigger. Some people have criticized that the movie is portraying all obese people like him as disgusting or depressed. But you can say that about shows such as My 600 Lb Life. No, I think the movie is more about grief and guilt.
Mary has turned to substance abuse and alcohol. How many movies have been about people who are addicted to pills or booze? This is no different than Leaving Las Vegas where a character is so far gone with depression, he doesn’t want to live anymore. Just think of what’s going on in Charlie’s head. He ended his marriage because he felt he would start a new life with Alan. But now that Alan is gone, he’s wondering what the hell it’s all about? If he had stayed with Mary, would Alan not have been killed himself? He’s blaming himself for so many things.
And Mary herself, even thoug she’s not in the movie as much, is piling on the guilt. Charlie discovers that he’s been sending more money to Mary and Ellie but Ellie is unaware of the extra money beside child support. Is this to make Ellie resent Charlie more? Is the extra money going to the booze that is making Ellie hate Mary? But it still doesn’t make May a villain? Why isn’t she with someone else? It’s been almost a decade. It’s possible Mary doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to admit) that it also had something to do with her.
Fraser is perfect in this role, mainly because he’s had so many things happen in his professional and private life that mirror Charlie. At one time, he was the A-list box office idol until some on-set injuries and surgeries caused problems with his health. Then there was that divorce settlement that let to him paying $900,000 a year which led to him having to take on roles he didn’t want to pay the bills. And then, there was the sexual assault allegations. Fraser has had a rotten run of luck and is the rare Hollywood celebrity who didn’t do it to himself.
People tend to forget that even though he had appeared in silly comedies like Airheads and Encino Man, he was already been cast in more serious roles such as School Ties and Gods and Monsters. He can act and this is kinda the role he was made for. He doesn’t turn Charlie into someone to pity. He’s more complex. And even though you can understand why he does what he does, you wonder why he had to do it.
On a more personal note, I know exactly where Charlie is coming from. I’ve suffered a huge loss and there are days you just don’t want to do anything but gorge yourself. It hurts and it’s hard to explain it to people who haven’t had it happen to them. That’s the horribe side to people like Ellie, Thomas, Dan and Charlie’s students when he finally reveals himself, they’re young and don’t have the experience that life brings to them. They just see someone who is disgusting. We see a few people laugh at Charlie when he turns his camera on and the rest are shocked. In our society, fat people are supposed to be a joke.
And that is why I think some of the criticism has actually done more damage. Most people criticizing Fraser’s performance and the Oscar win for Best Make-up. But it’s nothing more than ableism by liberal-minded people wanting to make it about them. It would be dangerous for a filmmaker to use a 600-pound man and it would also be exploitative. Also, a lot of people probably would’ve laughed at someone like Charlie if they say him in real life or be repulsed. They wouldn’t act the same way if they say someone who was an amputee or developmentally disabled.
I think we can see Charlie and obese people like him more human this way rather than the gross characters in comedies who fart all the time.
What do you think? Please comment.