No surprise from Aronofsky, but we have some questions!
Editor's Note: The following contains spoilers for The WhaleDarren Aronofsky’s The Whale has already proven to be one of the most controversial films of the year, which isn’t all that surprising considering Aronofsky’s history of making divisive projects. While Brendan Fraser has received widespread acclaim for his powerful performance as the overweight professor Charlie, the film has been perceived as “fatphobic” by some critics. It will be interesting to see where The Whale ends up landing this awards season; some view it as emotionally devastating, while others consider it to be manipulative and overtly cruel.
The Whale is based on a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, and Aronofsky’s adaptation does a good job of reflecting the intimacy of a stage performance. The film takes place entirely within Charlie’s apartment as his friend Liz (Hong Chau) comes to care for him. Charlie has managed to isolate himself from the world; he communicates with his students via Zoom but does not ever show his face. Charlie decides to reconnect with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who has no interest in him. Charlie agrees to help write her English papers if she will spend time with him and write personal essays from her heart.
Towards the end of the film, Charlie’s world begins to crumble. After making a series of inflammatory messages to his students, he’s fired from his job. His ex-wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), confronts him about his relationship with Ellie and criticizes him for his failures in their marriage. After being alerted that he has congestive heart failure, Charlie goes on an eating binge and consumes pizza until he vomits. It’s an emotionally overwhelming experience, especially toward the very final moments of the story.
As Charlie reveals early on, he is openly gay and was in a relationship with one of his former students, Alan. Following Alan’s death, Charlie began compulsively eating, prompting Alan’s sister Liz to come and take care of him. As part of their arrangement, Mary forbids Charlie from contacting Ellie; she reacts with rage when she realizes he’s asked her to visit him. While Charlie is apologetic for his failure as a father, he does not apologize for his sexuality. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Charlie stands up to the missionary boy Thomas (Ty Simpkins), whose religion preaches homophobic messaging.
As Mary reveals to Charlie, Ellie has been bullying people online through a private Facebook page. Mary feels that she has raised a cruel child and despite how Charlie has hurt the family, Ellie is the true “monster” in their family. In addition to posting pictures of her father, Ellie sends photos of Thomas (a former addict) to his church and family. Despite the seemingly cruel action, Thomas tells Charlie that he has newfound faith in people, as his parents have reached out to forgive him and welcome him home. Thomas also finds a picture of Charlie with Alan and realizes that he only put on the weight as a means of coping with his partner’s suicide.
Even though her father has been ghostwriting her essays so she can graduate, Ellie lashes out at Charlie when she realizes that he sent in an essay that she wrote when she was younger. Charlie feels that the essay is “honest” in a way that he appreciates, as he’s irritated by his students’ generic responses to his questions and prompts. He’s kept the essay for years and uses it to comfort himself. He tells Ellie how beautiful and talented she is, and for the first time, Ellie believes it. Even though Ellie spends the majority of the story mocking other people, she is in denial of her own talents and insecurities.
Throughout the film, Charlie orders pizza online and has the delivery boy, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), leave it outside his door. While Dan tries to spark a conversation with him because he visits Charlie’s apartment so often, Charlie refuses to step outside and show his face. However, Dan decides to wait on the porch when Charlie comes to pick up the pizza and finally sees him for the first time. His immediate response is to look at Charlie in disgust.
Charlie’s ultimate goal is to be completely honest with everyone around him. He refuses to apologize for his homosexuality to Thomas, and chastises him for thinking of him as “disgusting.” He realizes that even though Ellie appears to be cynical, she is really just seeking approval. He even shows his face to his students, and compliments some of the responses that they left in the last message board post that he felt were more honest than their previous work.
Charlie is dying at the very end and refuses to go to the hospital. As he bonds with Ellie, he attempts to stand. Between the effort of moving and his overall mental state, Charlie dies and ascends into an idealized version of heaven. It’s not the first time that Aronofsky has tackled religious imagery within his films. Both Noah and The Fountain directly deal with faith, spirituality, the afterlife, and the stories of the Bible-inspired mother! While Charlie meets his fate, he’s able to feel accomplished and unashamed.
While both the original stage production and the film are very similar, Hunter made some changes to the script when translating it to a feature. Certain elements of the story, such as the Zoom calls and personal photographs, are detailed in a way that wasn’t possible on stage. While the play was released in 2012, the film takes place amidst the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, as news footage can be seen in the background. The endings are the same, but the film is slightly more hopeful, as Charlie feels that he has accomplished something greater.
Liam Gaughan is a film and TV writer at Collider. He has been writing film reviews and news coverage for eight years with bylines at Dallas Observer, About.com, Taste of Cinema, Dallas Morning News, Schmoes Know, Rebel Scum, and Central Track. He aims to get his spec scripts produced and currently writes short films and stage plays. He lives in McKinney, TX.
The Whale Ending Explained: What Happens in Brendan Fraser's … – Collider
No surprise from Aronofsky, but we have some questions!