This story reminds us that there is beauty in moments of tragedy.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is a tragic drama adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his stage play of the same name. Starring Brendan Fraser, The Whale focuses on Charlie, an obese man with congestive heart failure, reckoning with his life over the course of a week. Although the film differs greatly from Aronofsky’s last project, Mother!, the film is focused on the subjectivity of Charlie’s confined grief.
The film is morally and emotionally messy, but that seems to be the point. Each character introduced in the film is struggling with something greater than the space they are confined to. Despite Aronofsky’s and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s well-choreographed dance around the single location and intimate framing of each character, the emotional beats of the story are at battle with each other.
The Whale purposefully lacks the perspective of self-awareness to put audiences into the space of the characters orbiting around Charlie and his unprocessed grief. From multiple scenes quickly alternating tones to the heavy motif of an analysis of Moby Dick, The Whale is an exercise in humanity, self-awareness, and the desire to see the best in the people who come into our lives.
How to Masterfully Balance Dual Tones
The Whale is a tragically earnest story about a man trying to rediscover his faith in humanity while searching for forgiveness from those he loves.
The film is focused on a person’s truth being spoken—but what happens when that truth is buried under the weight of the expectation? Those ideas and insecurities are at war throughout the film’s runtime, with an essay analyzing Moby Dick underscoring it.
Each time Charlie believes he is going to die, he reads aloud an analysis of the book, centering on the belief that the narrator of the book is trying to focus on the details of the whale, the unattainable dream, to save the reader from the narrator’s own sad story. Charlie is trying to do just this throughout the film, often pushing the focus off of himself to focus on the other characters.
There is a balance between humanity versus the self. The story focuses on this theme by forcing Charlie to not look at himself and his place in the world. He wants the world to have truth to it, yet he keeps denying himself at every point in his life. He wants to find hope for humanity rather than finding it in himself.
When Charlie discovers that he is going to die if he doesn’t go to the hospital, an act he refuses to do out of guilt, Charlie opens a drawer of food and begins to eat. As he goes to take another bite, he notices a bird outside of his window eating the food he left out. In awe of the simplistic beauty of life, Charlie steps back and re-evaluates what it means to be alive. Perhaps knowing that it is too late for him, Charlie’s mission in the last week of his life is to remind others of that beauty.
There are multiple moments like this in the film. This is mostly seen with Charlie’s daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is described by her mother as evil. While she is a terror at multiple points in the movie, Ellie is a character that no one believes can be a good person. It is difficult to know if Ellie even sees herself as a person capable of doing good or being worthy of life.
In his self-destruction, Charlie can show Ellie that she is and always has been worthy of a good life. Through a mixture of hope and grief, Ellie cannot process that the only person who outwardly cared and had hope for her isn’t saving him from his own tragic story.
Liz (Hong Chau) is also forced into this tragedy with Ellie as she simultaneously enables Charlie’s food addiction while lambasting Charlie for his addiction. Similar to Ellie, Liz longs for a connection that she cannot have with her deceased brother, who was Charlie’s partner. Liz finds those small moments of joy with Charlie, but the threat of his addiction to food disrupts those moments. Each scene between Liz and Charlie is agonizing yet tender. She does anything Charlie wants, leaving her powerless in the end as she accepts Charlie’s self-destructive nature.
The balance between the dual tones of the films is masterful. While the film doesn’t hide its stage roots through its melodramatic plot and character introductions, each scene and line of dialogue is impactful and honest. Each character wants to find their truth and their place in the world, while Charlie, acting as both an instigator and martyr, aids in the discovery of each character’s discovery of their truths.
This film succeeds because Charlie finds what he is searching for. He discovers the amazing, honest things that people often feel don’t matter, but they do. Charlie can’t save himself or anyone, but he can encourage us to find faith and beauty in ourselves before it is too late.
The Whale is a feel-so-bad-that-you-can’t-help-but-feel-good type of movie. It restores the viewer’s faith in themselves by having Charlie declare that humans are amazing and capable of doing great things in a world that often makes us feel insecure and unworthy. This film reminds us to find hope in the bleakness of life by balancing the tone of each interaction between characters with other characters or themselves delicately and never accusing anyone of being in the wrong.
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