In the opening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale, we find ourselves on a wooded, rural highway somewhere in North America. It’s quiet, idyllic, peaceful, without much traffic. A bus pulls up, stop, lets off a passenger on the side of the road, and pulls away. We do not see what he looks like. The camera does not pull in further, and in retrospect, it is an odd scene to begin a movie set almost entirely indoors. Indeed, with one very big exception, the Whale is not so much a cinematic adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s award winning 2013 drama so much a stage version of the play put to film.
In the next scene, we meet the very big exception, Charlie a lecturer at an online university in the process of teaching a lower level English course. While The Whale takes place in 2016 — there is running coverage of Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican Party primaries — the class feels more like 2020. Charlie’s students look bored, impatient, like they would rather be somewhere else. They are young, but don’t have the quality of youth. What’s more, almost as if he were wearing a mask, they can’t see Charlie’s face. “When is the professor finally going to get his webcam fixed?” one student remarks sarcastically. Charlies students will have to wait until the end of the movie to find out what their professor looks like. We get to see him in the very next scene.
Francoise Truffaut once remarked that it is impossible to make a genuinely antiwar movie since the cinematic aesthetic almost always throws a veil of glamour over the blood, gore, death and destruction. The same pitfall apply to addiction and self-destruction. If what does not kill you makes you stronger, what does kill you can also make you cool. Cigarettes cause cancer. They’re also inherently cinematic. While heroin addiction isn’t quite as cool as it was in the 1990s, it also killed Kurt Cobain and informed the aesthetic of neo-psychedelic groups like Mazzy Star and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even alcoholism, as anybody who’s ever watched Humphry Bogart in Casablanca declare his nationality to be that of a “drunkard,” is more than just a way of killing yourself. It can also be a way of turning yourself into a romantic hero.
One form of self-destruction that’s almost impossible to make beautiful, however, is morbid obesity, which is exactly what we see when Charlie’s class ends. Brendan Fraser, who won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Charlie, the tall, rugged hunk from The Mummy, is now a balding middle-aged man wearing the fat suit that probably cost half the film’s budget. Charlie is not only fat. He’s quite literally killing himself by overdosing on food, a long, slow arduous process that has left him weighing at least 600 pounds, and has jacked up his blood pressure to 233/167. It’s immediately obvious why he doesn’t want his students to know what he looks like since he almost embodies the idea of the “corruption of the flesh,” of sin, or moral turpitude. Aronofsky takes the idea of Charlie’s depravity so far over the top it becomes almost funny. Masturbating to gay porn, he groans with pleasure until he clutches his chest and starts to groan in pain. Is Charlie having an orgasm or is he having a heart attack? No, he’s having a heart attack while he’s having an orgasm, sex, death, depravity, and self-destruction all wrapped up in a 600 pound, sweating, wheezing mound of flesh. Then we hear a knock on the door, and Thomas, a young man, barely into his 20s, the same young man who had gotten off the bus in the opening scene, walks into Charlie’s apartment.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?” he says, gasping in horror at the mountainous spectacle in front of him.
Quickly realizing that Charlie needs a doctor more than he needs a religious lesson, Thomas asks to borrow Charlie’s phone to call an ambulance — oddly for a member of Generation Z Thomas does not have a working cell phone — but Thomas’s first impulse was actually correct. Charlie, who is too far gone to save himself physically, is more interested in “the word” than in the flesh. He does in fact want to talk about books, just not the “good book.” Handing Thomas a typed single page he begs him to read. Baffled, Thomas hesitates, but Charlie insists, and when Thomas finally begins, we realizes it’s a crudely written book report on Moby Dick, the other whale of the title, an essay we later learn was written by someone long estranged but dear to Charlie’s heart, words he wants to have going through his mind as he dies. For Charlie, the beautiful, ornately poetic language of the King James Bible, would only take him further away from himself, from his family, from what he wants to remember in death. What Charlie values above all is not beauty, but authenticity. For Charlie, as he tells his students, a few words written sincerely from the heart are more valuable than the Song of Solomon.
The Whale has been criticized for casting a height weight proportional actor in a fat suit instead of a genuinely obese man, but I personally think Brenden Fraser is perfect for the role. Orson Welles and Marlon Brando in their later years were grotesquely fat, and either could have played a self-destructive English teacher, but both men also had a commanding presence, a force, an authenticity that would overwhelmed Charlie’s inner torment and made it impossible for us to understand the reason he has decided to commit suicide by overdosing on food. Brendan Fraser, on the other hand, with his thick lips, male pattern baldness, his almost stereotypical middle-aged ugliness, has a soft, weak, confused quality about him that at first glance would make him the kind of man no woman, or man, could love, the kind of man who would die a virgin, but it is not so. Charlie in fact used to be a respectable, educated, middle-class man, but it all came at the cost of denying himself, of denying his own homosexuality and emotional complexity. When, well into middle-age, he finally meets the love of his life, he gives up everything he has, his family, his job, his health, and finally his life, all to be true to the self he had been denying so long.
Indeed, Aronofsky has played a clever trick on us all. With the help of Brendan Fraser, he has taken the ugliest possible object anybody can imagine and made it beautiful. Thomas is a sincere young man who, unlike Charlie’s friend and caretaker Liz, depicted by the actress Hong Chau in a complex, nuanced, and compassionate performance, doesn’t quite understand that Charlie doesn’t want to be saved. He wants to be damned on his own terms. Like one of Dante’s beautiful sinners in the upper circles of hell, like Francesca Di Rimini, who was murdered while in the act of adultery and thus damned, he wants to cling to his beloved object for all of eternity, even if that eternity is full of misery. If the double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain, Charlie wants to feel his grief forever.