I have no qualms admitting I was in no hurry to see The Whale, even though I generally regard a Darren Aronofsky film as essential viewing. Which is peculiar in itself, as I don’t actually like very many of his pictures. He’s an interesting filmmaker, one with a talent for selecting subject matter with potential, but in a manner I tend to respond to negatively (in contrast, say, to Steven Soderbergh, who’s a technically proficient director with little apparent sensibility and nothing to say for himself, hence I tend to respond to him indifferently). The prospect of a movie documenting a man eating himself to death put me in mind of the nihilistic junkie hell of his sophomore effort Requiem for a Dream; if Aronofsky had been old enough, he’d surely have leapt at the chance of making Leaving Las Vegas, such is his appetite for self-destruction. For the most part, however, The Whale is a much more humane affair than Requiem. Aside from thematic overkill, it’s biggest problem is that, for all Aronofsky’s cinematic skillset, it’s unable to hide its theatrical origins.
That doesn’t always matter. You can readily tell where Glengarry Glen Ross came from, but it’s still utterly compelling. The Whale – or Samuel D Hunter’s source play – is, at times, a little too schematic in its choices of how it gets from scene to scene, who it features in each scene and the territory it covers therein. It also has no business being a shade under 2 hours when 90 minutes would have done fine. But it’s anchored by a hugely – ahem – affecting, soulful performance from Brendan Fraser that carries it through most of its frequently ungainly setups and encounters.
One could call this calculated. Charlie’s a big – ahem – open character, prone to profuse apologies and wretched consumption but infused with boundless humanity; when the increasingly contrived interactions see the always-welcome Samantha Morton show up as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary – super-reliable as Morton is, she can’t mask some of the serving-the-emotional-exposition dialogue – she tells him “That positivity, it’s so annoying” (“You’re a complete cynic” he replies of their historic bond). Fraser was a canny choice on Aronofsky’s part for that reason, since he exudes a certain unfiltered sincerity (the director has done this career rejuvenation thing before with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, but I have to admit I wasn’t really feeling it there). I shudder at the thought of a version of this starring James Cordern.
Charlie’s at the end of a prolonged period of depressive ingesting; friend and carer Liz (Hong Chau, outstanding) tells him he’s suffering from congestive heart failure and won’t last until the weekend – it’s the beginning of the week – if he doesn’t go to hospital (Charlie, indicting the medical establishment, rebuffs the suggestion, since it will involve “10s of 1,000s of dollars in hospital bills I’ll never be able to pay back”).
For a recluse, his home suddenly gets very busy. Besides lecturing English writing students via Zoom sessions with his camera off – with rousing encouragements, Robin Williams-like, to be yourself – he’s being visited by his reluctant, estranged and troubled daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink of Stranger Things) and Thomas (Ty Simpkins, of The Nice Guys). The latter professes to be from the New Life Church that was key to Charlie’s boyfriend’s suicide – and thence Charlie’s morbid obesity – but has his own “dark” secrets. Liz, however, is highly possessive of her territory, and wants neither interloper intruding on her patient.
Hunter pads ideas about, of guilt, responsibility and atonement, of martyrdom (Charlie’s primary concern is a fund for his daughter) and forgiveness. There’s tremendous sympathy offered to Charlie, and while the cause-and-effect of his condition is presented, there’s wisely no attempt to deconstruct his suffering in a manner that exonerates him or asks why he doesn’t just get off his fat ass and pull himself together. That said…
Aronofsky has set the proceedings in 2016. Why? Because they’re before a “seismic change” in the world. If he meant the coof, why is the focus on TV news of the Republican presidential primaries? To imply everything went to shit when Trump got in, like everyone else does in Hollywood? Either way, the only germane way to read the decision, given the movie’s subject matter, is as an attack on Trump attacking Obamacare (which wore the mask of affordable health insurance but, as with most things political, was largely surface trappings). Making it as cheap as the arguments over religion here (other changes work rather better; casting Hong Chau may – may? Who are we trying to kid? – have been about fearing the movie was too white without her, but making her an adopted child of evangelical parents adds to the material rather than translating as tokenism. Of course, without her, you just have the pizza delivery guy for representation).
Yes, the ever-present spectre of religion and its insidious effects on all permeate the picture. Rejection (Liz) or disdain (Ellie) are the appropriate courses, since it’s evident first-hand (Charlie) what it does to anyone who takes it seriously (Alan, Liz’s adoptive brother, was the son of the leader of the New Life Church, cut off when his father discovered his gay relationship). Even the well-meaning proselytiser (Thomas) is a liar and a thief (we know something is amiss as soon as he tells Ellie that Charlie was interested to hear more about the church, thus gaining access through false pretences).
Is Aronofsky a struggling atheist? His path from a “culturally Jewish” upbringing has seen him repeatedly tackle the trappings of religious thought in his works, from the kabbala (Pi), to Gnosticism in The Fountain (which also absorbs Luciferian ideas of becoming and the Kabbala’s Tree of Life while taking a very literal, Rockefeller approach to medicine; it’s “My biggest expression of what I believe…”), to The Bible with Noah (this is old-school creation, but liberally dolloping on the Book of Enoch and seen through an at-best agnostic lens) and creation itself in mother! (the Biblical creation myth as student art project, with his 20-year-junior-then-lover-muse as Gaia – Darren’s a budding Greta, with his enviro chops dangling everywhere). Were Aronofsky inveterately of the Dawkins school, he’d be much less abashed in bashing religious themes, but the way in which they’re forever on his mind suggests, on some level, he remains a seeker (much like another confirmed atheist, Gilliam, in that respect).
This would be well and good, were Aronofsky actually unearthing nourishing nuggets of philosophical inquiry, but he seems stuck probing the philosophy via the religion, rather than the spiritual themes that inform it. Which tends to reduce it to the obvious and ever-so-slightly pedestrian. If, when he does look at existence through a lens of prospective belief, he takes in the gnostic perspective as the most likely explanation – that is, a demiurgic force delivering a rather sloppy creation per mother! – it’s no wonder he then retreats to the safe shore of denying the existence of God when sifting theory (and when he yields to meditations on creation, both – Noah and mother! – explicitly make room for evolution, indicative he can’t even have an honest debate with himself).
Much of The Whale preoccupies itself with an attack on structured religion; it’s prejudicial, you know, and espouses hate, not love, vilification, not acceptance, and judging others without concern for being judged oneself. Those brought up in such an environment wind up dead (Alan), aggrieved (Liz) or mixed up (Thomas). “You’re young. Why the hell would you want to believe that the world’s about to end?” Liz asks Thomas (this is, ironically, the same creed of the enviro movement Aronofsky extols). Even the non-religious Ellie refers to New Life as “That end-times cult thing?” (Thomas responds defensively that it is not a cult). “Do you really think the world is going to end soon?” asks Charlie. Which is the exact language with which people have been mocking Greta’s “5 years left” proclamation recently (which is not to defend either, but to point out that both are a form of grifting).
Ellie tells Thomas “What I like about religion is that it assumes everyone is an idiot and they’re all incapable of saving themselves” before adding “What I don’t like is that everyone accepts Jesus, or whatever, they suddenly think they’re better than everyone else”. Which again, could be used to indict any movement that thinks it has the answer. This is the imprimatur. The reasonable – except in his dietary considerations – Charlie tells Thomas he has read The Bible several times (“I thought it was devastating”), but his baby-and-bathwater objections are demonstrative in illustrating the manner with which people are expected to accept or reject, without a contemplative through line between: he summaries that God created us, expelled us from paradise, killed us off, and sent his son to die, who then comes back saving 144,000 while 7.5 billion of us fall into hell. But the reason Alan was messed up wasn’t religion (essentially); it was his (religious) family refusing to accept him for who he was. Just as the reason Thomas, indoctrinated like Alan, appears to be okay at the end is because his (religious) family do accept him (in his case, that he’s lying, stealing and smoking weed suggests the religious thing is about habit rather than conviction).
“I’m not interested in being saved” Charlie tells Thomas, who is trying to convince himself “I really think God brought me here for a reason” (which isn’t so far form Charlie telling himself Ellie shopped Thomas out of the goodness of her heart: “She did it to send him home”. So less the verdict of her mother: “She’s awful, isn’t she? Charlie, she’s evil”. One scene is eerily similar to one in Beau is Afraid, where Ellie instructs Thomas to “Take a hit or I call police and tell them that you tried to rape me”, suggesting the unchecked #MeToo movement may be on these directors’ minds). It’s true enough that “It doesn’t help people to tell them that they should believe in God”, but neither does it help people to present either/ors the way Aronofsky seems intent on (not that anything in his worldview is especially appetising). Thomas mentions spiritual guidance, but what he means is reading from The Bible; it’s conditional. So Aronofsky has to fall back on weak-swill postulations like Charlie hoping there isn’t a god or afterlife “so Alan can see what I have done to myself”.
It’s a very restricting lens, which may be why, for all their eccentricities and philosophical/metaphysical ruminations and aspirations, Aronofsky’s three earlier metaphysical fantasies rather feel like they’re bludgeoning the audience: his reincarnated-not seeker of immortality in The Fountain; Russell Crowe surfing the waves in a big box in Noah; and mother! having her baby mutilated and eaten. And so he resorts to the essentially humanist affirmation here (“Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”) before welching and offering Charlie an afterlife as he expires and lifts off his feet. It’s been suggested it’s up to the audience to decide whether Charlie actually walks in that end scene. If he does, it’s as well the director cut before he topples onto Ellie.
The Whale’s a movie where performance and technique ultimately overcome core material prone to such soiled platitudes as “You’re the best thing I have ever done”. It’s more satisfying than anything Aronofsky has made since Black Swan, perhaps because it leads with the instruction to have a hanky ready over half-baked pseuding. I suppose you could argue the half-baked pseuding here is at least presented as exactly that.