Movie Review: The Whale


S.C. Farrow

2/9/202313 min read

a man in a blue shirt and brown pants
a man in a blue shirt and brown pants

Unless you’ve been shunning the media or hiding yourself away in some cold, dank cave for the last few months, you must surely have heard of the surprise hit movie The Whale staring comeback kid, Brendan Fraser. A writer friend and colleague invited me to go along and see it with him earlier this week.

Darren Aronofsky’s movies can be challenging for audiences and for his actors. For me, his films are always a bit hit-and-miss. Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Wrestler were great, but Black Swan and Noah… Yikes. However, I got caught up in the hype and praise for Brendan Fraser’s big screen comeback. Like many movie fans, I love Brendan Fraser and was keen to see him in something new, and so I was happy to go to the cinema with my friend to see what all the hoopla was about.

After watching the movie, my friend and I discussed it at some length, and much of what is written here was prompted by that discussion. For the record, we both enjoyed the film. In fact, I enjoyed more than I thought I would, and I can certainly see why it might garner an Oscar nod or two. However, while some critics are praising the film a masterpiece, others were less than impressed. It turns out this humble, yet poignant little film is quite polarising. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground at all; people either believe it to be a masterpiece, or a pile of sentimental claptrap.

Now, I don’t normally write opinion pieces on other people's creative work because I largely agree with literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes, who said, “the author is dead”. What did Barthes mean by that? Long story short, he meant that once a work is published, or in this case filmed, and sent out into the world to be read or viewed, it’s up to the audience to divine the narrative’s meaning. This means, of course, that every member of the audience will have a different interpretation of the work, but according to Barthes, that’s how it should be.

Having said that, I feel that some of the criticism levelled at this movie is a little unfair so I’m going to offer up my two cents along with the thousands of others who have reviewed this latest blockbuster. Now, a detailed analysis of everything in this narrative would take weeks of research and writing so I’m just going to focus on some of the most contentious aspects of the film. Sorry about that.

And before I begin, I’d like to remind everyone that no film, book, play, or epic poem is perfect because all fiction is contrived, even if it is based on a true story, and with that, we should take all narratives for what they are—allegories or metaphors for issues that are often deep, uncomfortable, confronting, or disturbing.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet, be warned. From this point on, there will be SPOILERS.

Now, on with my two cents…


Aware of his imminent death from heart disease, a grossly obese man reaches out to his estranged teen-aged daughter, whom he hasn’t seen for almost ten years, in the hope of reconnecting with her and redeeming himself before he passes away.


The movie is based on an award-winning play (Lucille Lortel Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Significant Contribution to Theatre) written by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

Based, at least in part, on Hunter’s own life experiences, he started work on the script thirteen years ago when teaching expository writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He could see that his class of college freshmen didn’t really believe in what they were writing and were simply writing content that they thought he wanted to read. Seeing this, he challenged them to write something honest. They rose to that challenge, and he ended up getting several moving responses to his request. This anecdote is significant because Hunter uses it as a device in the movie script.


One of the biggest criticisms is that the film hasn’t expanded much upon the play, especially in terms of locations. The Whale is a “contained” movie, i.e., it has one location and a limited number of actors. Movies like this are like a producer's dream, but they are also not without inherent problems. Locations often form the function of a character and have an emotional impact on the characters.

In The Whale, the main character, Charlie, is a shut in. His obesity prohibits him from going outside and he staunchly refuses to go to the hospital for treatment. As such, his upstairs, two-bedroom apartment is a metaphoric coffin or tomb, which is suitably dark and dank, and definitely adds weight to the gritty realism (and possibly even magic realism) of this intriguing tale.

Only the myriad shelves laden with books attest to the fact that Charlie is educated and somewhat sophisticated. Yet, despite this education and sophistication, Charlie is an archetypal ‘innocent’. We’ll talk about this important aspect of the character in more detail a bit later.

But first, let’s talk about the melodrama. One critic said:

"…with its themes of redemption, family love, and the boundless capacity for caring about other people—all fine in themselves but too melodramatic, too portentous here—doesn’t tell us much about the psychology of obesity."

Is this film melodramatic? At times, yes, it is undeniably melodramatic. In the movie world, the word melodrama is something of a dirty word. When handled badly, melodrama can make audiences squirm in their seats. However, the melodrama in this film was nowhere near squirm-worthy, and so I feel this criticism is a little unfair and akin to going to see a dramatic movie and then complaining about the drama.

And everything about the movie is portentous. It does nothing to hide the fact that each day spanning the length of the film is counting down to Charlie’s last day. It’s a significant point.

Melodramatic moments in The Whale are largely sprung from the technical device of releasing of emotional tension that has built up in a character to a point where it can no longer be contained. Without those melodramatic moments, this movie could well have been a dirge that did nothing but plod along from one critical incident to the next without any demonstrable moments of light and shade.

And these demonstrable moments of light and shade are necessary in a movie such as this, largely because the narrative is contained to a single location. Charlie’s apartment is a metaphor for the claustrophobic coffin or tomb in which he lives. Because of this, demonstrable moments of light and shade are not only necessary but welcome.


The film has received much criticism for its use of a fat suit as well as its overall depiction of obesity. Of self-medicating with food. That first critic also said the movie ‘doesn’t tell us much about the psychology of obesity’.

I disagree. I think this movie says much about the psychology of obesity.

Another critic argued that putting:

"…a camera in front of Brendan Fraser, encased in a fat suit that makes him appear to weigh 600 pounds, and asking us to wallow in his deterioration. In theory, we are meant to pity him or at least find sympathy for his physical and psychological plight by the film's conclusion. But in reality, the overall vibe is one of morbid fascination for this mountain of a man."

I’m not going to mention any of the critics’ names because, rightly or wrongly, I don’t believe they don’t matter as much as their comments do.

The Whale is a hybrid dirty realist/psychological realist narrative. If it weren’t for elements of sophistication, it would be a low-rent tragedy about people who watch daytime television, read cheap romances, or listen to country and western music. It features characters who have lost their way; however, it also digs into the reason why they have lost their way.

Aronofsky did indeed place a camera in front of Brendan Fraser for the purpose of spectacle and has been called out for doing so with accusations of fat shaming. Others believe an actor who was closer to Charlie’s size should have been cast. Fraser and Aronofsky worked with the Obesity Action Coalition and in partnership with a psychiatrist and eating disorder specialist to ensure Charlie was represented with as much sensitivity and empathy as possible.

Aronofsky’s decision to film these moments raises the question of whether or not audiences would have as much sympathy for Charlie if they hadn’t seen his shirtless body, or the way he constantly sweats, gulps down food, or struggles to walk or get out of his chair? And if they hadn’t seen those things, those intensely personal and close-up moments—would they have been able to discern the difference between his life and their own?

The point is that Aronofsky does want us to gawk at Charlie so that he can move us past any initial fascination, morbid or not, with his physical presence in order to see the reality and tragedy that have led to such an extreme existence. This is dirty realism.


The overarching theme of The Whale is the unattainability of desires, but the narrower and more focused theme is that of redemption, which is skillfully woven throughout the narrative. Another critic said this:

"His depiction of Charlie's isolation within his squalid Idaho apartment includes a scene of him masturbating to gay porn with such gusto that he almost has a heart attack, a moment made of equal parts shock value and shame. But then, in a jarring shift, the tone eventually turns maudlin with Charlie's increasing martyrdom."

Martyrdom? A martyr is a person who sacrifices something of great value, especially life itself, for the sake of principle or so that others might be redeemed. Is Charlie a martyr? What principle is he sacrificing himself to? Is he being killed?

I would argue that he is being killed, arguably by two people: himself and his only friend, Liz. When Charlie’s boyfriend Alan committed suicide, Alan’s sister Liz stepped up to help take care of him. Liz is a nurse who brings him food, keeps him company, listens to his failing heartbeat through a stethoscope, and warns him he must go to hospital if he wants to survive. Liz is a Godsend and a true saviour.

Or is she? Liz is a good person. Her heart is in the right place, but the truth is she’s enabler, i.e., a person who enables negative or self-destructive behaviour in another. She brings Charlie buckets of deep-fried chicken and meatball sub sandwiches—she is effectively assisting in killing Charlie with her misguided kindness. Liz is not a saviour and despite arguing, her intentions are ‘good’.

And then there’s the missionary who comes to Charlie’s front door preaching the good word and unexpectedly saves Charlie from a potentially deadly heart attack. Charlie invites the man in because he believes it to be Liz at the door and he needs help.

Critics have scorned the presence of this character, who makes repeated uninvited visits to Charlie’s house, arguing that his presence makes no sense. In some respects, this is true. After the first visit, there really is no reason for him to return. However, return he does, and during their conversations, we learn that Charlie was once a member of the same church that the missionary belongs to. The subject of salvation is raised once again when the missionary admits that he believes in the Rapture and that those who have given their life to God will be saved.

Charlie reveals that he has read the Bible many times and that he knows God’s plan, according to the book of Revelation, is to save a total of 144,000 men, which leaves the rest of the world’s population of 7.5 billion to die. Charlie doesn’t put much faith in that idea, but it doesn’t really matter as it appears as though Charlie doesn’t want to be saved anyway. For all intents and purposes, it appears that Charlie is a suicide who is slowly but surely killing himself with food. But why? What is driving him to commit this extreme kind of suicide?

It would seem that his choices are being driven by a sense of guilt for leaving his wife and child in order to make a life with Alan. After all, guilt is a moral emotion and Charlie is a highly sensitive person. And highly sensitive people often turn their emotional distress inward which, in turn, becomes self-destructive behaviour. Arguably, in Charlie’s case, he overeats due to his guilt.

However, Brendan Fraser doesn’t believe that Charlie is committing suicide. Rather, Fraser believes that despite being wounded by Alan’s death, Charlie wants to live even though he knows he must die. Curiously, Fraser does not elaborate on the reason why Charlie must die. If Charlie sought immediate help, he would likely survive so, what is driving him to continue on his path of self-destruction?

Charlie uses food to assuage his grief over Alan’s loss and admits that he just let his eating get out of control. Allusion is made to the fact that Alan is an anorexic, so the irony of Charlie being obese is not lost on those who caught that detail. Fraser adds that Charlie is not at peace with the fact that he is going to die, but believes his only salvation is to reconnect with his daughter.

Fraser’s take on the character is interesting, but he does not elaborate on why he believes Charlie wants to live or why he constantly refuses help to get his eating under control. Neither does he elaborate on why he believes Charlie requires salvation. Is it because he feels guilty for leaving his wife and child? Possibly, but I’m not so sure.

We know that at some point in his life, Charlie believed in God, as did his boyfriend Alan. When the church rejected Alan for being gay, Alan committed suicide. Presumably, it rejected Charlie for the same reason. And nobody imposes guilt quite like the Christian church—of any denomination. However, Charlie does not sacrifice himself as a martyr who is standing up for a principle. Rather, he crucifies himself on the cross of loss.

But I don’t think this cross is the loss of Alan, despite the fact that Charlie clearly loved him and is still mourning his loss. I believe the cross for Charlie is the metaphorical loss of his daughter, their years of estrangement, and the possibility they might never be reconciled. As the day of his death rapidly approaches, Charlie inherently knows he must fulfill his purpose—his task—of making his daughter see how amazing she is.


Brendan Fraser observed that weight stigma has significant consequences for emotional and physical health. He also argued that Charlie is self-aware, has the capacity to love, and sees good in others when they can’t see it in themselves; he can bring out that goodness in others but tragically can’t bring it out in himself.

When Charlie reconnects with his daughter after a very long estrangement, he proclaims that she is an amazing person. Considering she exhibits nothing but rage and visible contempt for him, it’s a bold claim. She is a truly awful human being who spits nothing but lies and venom every time she opens her mouth. Regardless of this, Charlie loves her, and everything Charlie does is in service of her wellbeing.

However, the daughter isn’t the only one who Charlie believes is amazing—he believes everyone is amazing. So, who is Charlie, and why does he believe everyone is amazing? Well, I believe Charlie is an “innocent”—in the archetypal sense. And it’s an archetype that is often misunderstood and disliked.

Despite being educated and sophisticated, Charlie demonstrates many of the values typically associated with this archetype. For example, positive qualities include simplicity, i.e., there’s a clear line between right and wrong, and every problem has a simple solution (his death); morality, i.e., he abides by his own moral code and wants to do the right thing; and joy/harmony, i.e., his number one goal is the happiness that he wants for himself and others. He is also optimistic, always choosing to see the good in others. He is loyal and follows through on commitments made to those he loves. And, for the most part, he is honest and sincere.

Negative qualities of this archetype include naivety, resisting change, disappointing others, and denial. Charlie exhibits all of these qualities.

This character archetype generally exists to be of service to another character or characters, and so it is not usually cast as a narrative’s protagonist. Often, this archetype is the deuteragonist or tritagonist and is some kind of ally to the hero, as their purpose is to rally the hero and keep them on the right track. They often provide a narrative’s comic relief.

If you’ve seen The Green Mile, the character John Coffey played this role to Tom Hanks’s protagonist. The novice nun Agnes in Agnes of God is also an “innocent”. However, this character archetype can also definitely be the protagonist. If you’ve seen the movie Elf, the protagonist, Buddy, is an archetypal “innocent”.

When an archetypal character has completed their task or their mission, they often either die or disappear entirely from the other characters’ lives.

For archetypal “innocents”, humanity’s darkness is often too much to bear, and Charlie has endured a lot of humanity’s darkness, i.e., bigotry from the church, loneliness, loss, isolation, unkindness, and impending death. As the protagonist, his function has not been to guide or support others on their journey, but to bring out the good in others, the good that they cannot see in themselves. Once he has achieved that with his daughter, he can be released from the pain of living. And arguably, Charlie has been his daughter’s salvation more than she has been his.

Brendan Fraser did not elaborate on the reason why Charlie must die, but I believe it is because he has completed his purpose or function, and so he chooses to die rather than to seek help to continue living. This might seem like a crazy choice to most people, but it is perfectly aligned to an archetypal “innocent” character.


And so, we come to the final scene, which has, once again, been subjected to criticism, with some critics even suggesting it is “twee”.

At some point, Charlie’s daughter decided to test his love for her and demanded that Charlie get up off his couch and walk across the room to her. When she first demands this of him, he is unable to do it. However, in the final scene, he does it, but it is not without consequences.

When Charlie finally reaches his daughter, who is now loving and supportive of him, the screen flashes white and we cut to a shot of Charlie’s feet as he levitates several inches above the floor. We immediately understood that Charlie has died as a result of his exertion. But why is he levitating off the floor? What is this meant to represent?

I’m fairly confident that the image is suggesting that Charlie is ascending into Heaven. This would certainly fit the “innocent” archetype and the religious themes of redemption and salvation. The big question is, is Charlie one of God’s 144,000?


As I said, a really in-depth analysis of this film could take weeks, if not months, because there is so much in the narrative to explore and unpack. And I haven’t even touched on references to the deeply homoerotic novel Moby Dick. Honestly, what I’ve written about here barely touches the surface of what’s going on in this multi-layered narrative.

More importantly, has playwright/screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter executed all of these multi-layered elements flawlessly? No, certainly not. Character motivations and “rules” of the archetype have certainly been “massaged” to fit the narrative; however, this does not make it a bad story at all. The Whale is an excellent story, well told, and it is certainly worth the price of a cinema ticket to see it.