• Can a Movie Both Cause Harm and Have Merit? Reckoning with My Love for The Whale

    What Do We Do When We Like a Movie That Causes Pain?

    I went into the theater expecting I would not like Darren Aronofsky’s most recent movie. The trailer had been evasive; all I knew was that Brendan Fraser was wearing a prosthetic fat suit and the title was The Whale, which already seemed fraught and emanated a vibe of depressing Art Film.

    Plus, I still hadn’t totally forgiven Aronofsky for Mother!. But as a heart-wrenching and—what most caught my attention—even humorous yarn was spun, The Whale thoroughly won me over. Now that’s left me wrestling with the intense ire it has provoked in other critics.

    The Whale follows a reclusive online English instructor named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who is extremely overweight and suffering from congestive heart failure after letting things “get out of control,” as he says, in the aftermath of his partner’s death. He is saved from an initial cardiac episode by a young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who happens by and acquiesces to Charlie’s urgent desire for Thomas to read aloud from an old student essay on Moby-Dick to help lower Charlie’s stress levels. Charlie’s nurse-friend Liz (Hong Chau) predicts that Charlie will not make it through the weekend.

    As he faces his own mortality, Charlie embarks on a mission to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged teenaged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who is on the verge of flunking out of high school. The strengths of each of these actors—Fraser’s grace, Sink’s fieriness, Chau’s brutal honesty, Simpkins’s lost soul—play off each other in surprising and witty ways, making each character’s convictions and frustrations and longings all the more passionate and real.

    Character development in The Whale is based on pairs: Missionary and Heretic, Science and Religion, Optimist and Pessimist, Overweight and Underweight. On a more fundamental level, these are not doubles at all: each character is fighting the same battle as Charlie, each with their own vice: binge eating, evangelism, alcoholism, truancy. They are different takes on the same old story, adding depth and universality to Charlie’s tale. These, the true whales of the story, distract the characters from their senses of abandonment and grief, their quests for love and honesty and acceptance.

    Like Ahab, America too often focuses on symptoms rather than the real problems (which we see playing out through the red wave on Charlie’s TV). As the story unfolds, we witness the ways that conservatism, Christianity, and a failing public education system come together to embody the isolation of a cast-aside rural America. In a deeply personal manner, this film subtly taps into so many aspects of societal negligence.

    The Whale is a true classical tragedy in the Aristotelian/Shakespearean sense, but one for the modern age. While we’ve often settled for bleak, one-note films about the ills of modern society, The Whale elevates political critique to operatic storytelling. This film will not answer all of your questions. It will not make you feel comfortable. And it will not allow you to watch passively. Really, The Whale invites you to untangle the threads of its own yarn, to bear a million little twinges as each knot between these characters is carefully massaged and undone.

    Although tragic, The Whale avoids doom; little rays of joy shine through even its gloomiest moments. The characters manage to seize any moment to be funny, to laugh at themselves. My emotional response to The Whale was similar to that of another A24 2022 release, Everything Everywhere All at Once—the kind of rare movie that articulates the feelings we can’t express to our loved ones in real life without inflicting pain and misunderstanding.

    Set entirely within Charlie’s apartment, this film could easily have been claustrophobic and as banal as the exterior shot of the building, but the sophistication of the set design draws us into a space as psychologically complex as the film’s studies in character, lending Charlie’s environs an almost mystical quality foreshadowing the dash of magical realism to come.

    How could I read articles like Gay’s and still like this movie? How could anyone? 

    During a talk at The Roxy Cinema in New York, Samuel D. Hunter (who wrote both the original play and its film adaptation) explained the oblique allusions to the sea that wash over The Whale: the constant references to Moby-Dick, the torrential rain, the water-stained ceilings, the wave-like wallpaper, the lilting ship-like sensation evoked by characters’ and the camera’s movements, the nautical artwork, and more. The details of the space rock from heavy to cozy, dreary to homey: the fireplace, the mossy hue of the living room walls, the coffered ceiling.

    We’re not peering into a space as banal as the exterior shots of the building, we’re in an apartment that someone once worked to make into a home. Later, we learn that behind a locked door is a charming and well-kept bedroom Charlie and his partner once shared, with a painting of mountains above the bed. The attention to detail and contrast in the scenery lend the film a mystical quality (perhaps foreshadowing the ending) that makes The Whale utterly captivating to watch.

    For all the beauty and attention to detail in the set and its intrinsic relationship to Charlie and his cohort, other details went too far: I found myself rolling my eyes at the umpteenth time the camera lingers on the strained motion of Charlie, with limited mobility, using a grabber tool to try to reach something. Aronofsky, who has luxuriated in the marvels and bruisings of the body throughout his oeuvre, leers at Charlie’s body through unnecessary shots that emphasize his struggles with movement, amped up sound while he eats, and a horror-esque score heightening Charlie’s physicality.

    Many of these moments that seem overdone in The Whale are also key moments of emotional intensity. But for many critics, that intensity is unearned or goes too far. Herein lies the source of tension in the critical response to The Whale: while Fraser’s performance in particular is stunning, the controversial handling of fatness coupled with a style that some critics found overwrought made the movie dismissible.

    Roxane Gay enumerates the dangers and insensitivity of Aronofsky’s approach to Charlie’s story in her New York Times review, and Buzzfeed News offers an in-depth history of the problem of Hollywood’s reliance on the fat suit. Comparing this essential criticism to my response to the film, I began to wonder if a movie could both have merit and cause offense. How could I read articles like Gay’s (or this review from The Conversation, headlined “The Whale is a horror film that taps into our fear of fatness”) and still like this movie? How could anyone?

    Aronofsky cannot be the The Whale’s devil and Fraser can’t be its savior.

    One of the most compelling pans of The Whale came from Justin Chang at The LA Times who reminds us of an obvious but often ignored truth of the film industry: movies arise from collaborative processes between many people. Aronofsky cannot be the The Whale’s devil and Fraser can’t be its savior. While the film ultimately didn’t work for Chang, his point speaks to one of my own: what or who is working or not working in this film is inextricably linked. We cannot have Fraser’s star performance without Hunter’s theatrical language or Aronofsky’s fetishizing vision.

    Upon a second viewing of the film, I paid more attention to the troubling moments I noticed the first time: the fat suit, the strained reach, the cuing of a horror movie soundtrack as Charlie moves or eats, the amplified sound of Charlie’s aggressive chewing. While the “cruelty” (as some have called it) of these moments is apparent, it’s also not straightforward. Each moment represents a point of rising tension and intensifying conflict in the film. I’m not convinced The Whale would be as emotionally gripping without these moments of augmentation.

    Where a stage play can rely on quippy and heartfelt dialogue alone, a movie needs cinematic tools to heighten the drama. That might not be enough of a justification for the shots of Fraser’s looming body rising above us with the crescendo of the eerie music, but elements of melodrama that often seem degrading on the surface can also provide the most powerful means of exploring ills and injustices—often more so than films more concerned with sensitivity. It’s not only that The Whale borrows from horror, camp, and melodrama to create emotional intensity; it’s that these moments also ask us to take the hardest look at too-often overlooked or neglected experiences.

    While the conversation playing out in the criticism regarding fatphobia and responsibility is absolutely necessary to have, especially with regards to a film walking such a moral tightrope, what’s frustrating is the lack of acknowledgement of the psychological nuance found in Charlie’s grief over his partner’s death, over his estrangement from his family, and how this connects in multiple (positive and negative) ways to his physical state and surroundings.

    Criticism of The Whale extends beyond issues of fat-shaming. The film’s psychological nuance is often impugned: Is it nuanced or sentimental? Is it emotionally belabored, reductive, and thematically inconclusive? All points I couldn’t disagree with more. The writing and its emotional intensity only seem over the top because we’re more used to that style on the stage than on film, one of the perils of stage-to-screen adaptation. I would argue that Aronofsky’s willingness to embrace these theatrical elements—and to actually pull them off as cinematic—is to his credit.

    Although the traditional screenplay values white space, I’d much rather watch a film with plenty to say, and I appreciate that Hunter, together with Aronofsky’s vision, challenged the limitations of the screenplay in order to prioritize character development above all else. That, for me, was the film’s saving grace: it’s about characters who are so much deeper than their first presentation that we must contemplate the unjust ways we dismiss people upon first impression.

    The writing and its emotional intensity only seem over the top because we’re more used to that style on the stage than on film, one of the perils of stage-to-screen adaptation.

    This challenge also addresses the issue of sentimentality. In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic, Leslie Jameson explores the benefits of the sentimental when coupled with real emotional labor on the part of the viewer: “[When] art makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t explain, there can be a sort of second stage to that feeling where we reflect on why those feelings happen and how they might guide us going forth.” “Sentimentality” may be among the most pernicious buzzwords of criticism. There are few other words that, in their definition, can seem so benign, and yet once dropped have done the labor of a thousand-word, thumbs-down review.

    Questioning whether a film has earned the emotions it inspires (or whether we have earned them by watching the film) is fair enough, but isn’t it ironic that once that word is used, no further critical analysis becomes necessary? In Creating Flannery O’Connor, his exemplary guide to dealing with critical response, Daniel Moran warns against favorite watchwords of critics that could mean so many things and often say less than we think they do at first skim (in the case of O’Connor criticism, Moran singles out the word “grotesque” in both positive and negative reviews—a word that also occasionally shows its face in Whale reviews and other Aronofsky reviews as well).

    For me, the sentiments aroused by The Whale are inextricably linked with the intellectual and philosophical rumination that lasts far beyond the film—tying into Jameson’s belief that sentimentality can be earned if we continue to work on and with and over the emotions it inspires. For The Whale, we cry because it makes us think as much as it makes us feel. Or at least, that’s how it should work when at its most effective.

    So, are The Whale’s merits enough to override its offenses? For me, the answer is yes, but that leads to another question: What do we do when we like a movie that causes pain? This reckoning is a delicate task. It’s one thing to watch a movie and have an emotional response. It’s another thing, as Jameson explains, to ask why we had that emotional response. For me, the ideas on faith, family, and ostracization that The Whale presents will stay with me, which makes the film truly valuable, beyond the emotional response it evoked in the moment of viewing.

    If we can’t see past Charlie’s weight, is the real problem with the movie itself, or is the problem with how we see the movie?

    Interestingly, I found critical responses closer to my own experience in reviews of the original play over the past ten years—but I also found the language thoroughly off-putting, replete with demeritorious dwellings on Charlie’s weight. “Charlie is so fat that he eats, works and sleeps on his couch, a stained horror of abused upholstery,” is the opening line from The Dallas Observer in 2015.

    “Charlie (Matthew Arkin) can barely get up from his sofa to go to the bathroom,” begins The Hollywood Reporter. From The Chicago Tribune: “Charlie, the dying, pathetic, 600-pound man stuck on the couch in the middle of Samuel D. Hunter’s beautifully devastating drama ‘The Whale,’ is familiar with blubber.” CurtainUp found the story “touching yet repellent” and described Charlie as “grossly obese.” And The New York Times declared, “There may be no more startling image on a New York stage right now” as they went on to describe Charlie as a “bulbous behemoth of a man.”

    It is positive to see how the conversation has shifted so drastically over the years to much more sensitive criticism regarding bodies, and yet the focus—the obsession, even—remains on Charlie’s weight rather than the rich character and his poignant tale. If the reviews are still primarily focused on the portrayal of weight rather than on how weight is one reflection of a fully dimensional character and his complex story, then the criticism is only superficially more sensitive, and has the potential to become another form of fatphobia.

    Although the traditional screenplay values white space, I’d much rather watch a film with plenty to say.

    The deeper, more interesting story of grief and mourning (and the ways our homophobic, fatphobic, conservative society leaves little room for it) has little to do with Charlie’s weight at all, despite his weight being used to propel plot and metaphor. This might seem to beg the question, why center the story around Charlie’s weight at all? To which I would say, why not? All good storytelling needs something concrete, specific, physical (at least in some ways) to hinge on, to get going with. Charlie is a complex protagonist who happens to be overweight. If we can’t see past Charlie’s weight—no matter how carefully we talk about it—is the real problem with the movie itself, or is the problem with how we see the movie?

    While occasionally I critiqued Aronofsky for taking his view of Charlie too far, mostly I found myself thinking about how I was responsible for taking Aronofsky’s view of Charlie too far. We must ask what our own role is when watching a film. When it comes to questions of a filmmaker’s moral responsibilities, I sometimes wonder if we are displacing those responsibilities because we are an unhealthy, celebrity-idolizing culture that wants to believe someone or something bigger than us can take the blame.

    The Whale invites you to make some of your own calls. Between the tension of faith and doubt, condemnation and redemption, the film settles in a strangely cathartic moral ambiguity. It is this oscillation between good and evil—and between characters who are honest or dishonest (with each other and themselves)—that saves the film from sappy (read: crappy) sentimentality. We settle somewhere on the spectrum between the extremes, incapable of knowing if any moment or gesture is truly what it seems or what we aim for it to be, or even if we know our own aims.

    That inability to know for sure, that perpetual doubt, speaks to the critique that the film eludes thematic conclusions, but to that I would ask: Why do we need our stories to give us firm answers and clear themes and specific morals? Ellie and Thomas, the characters who are most desperate for clear reasoning and sure things, are also the most disappointed to learn that part of adulthood (and faith) is accepting and coping with the doubt. It seems reductive that the closest thing we get to answers from The Whale are the simple concepts of love, caring, and honesty—but really, in the face of doubt, what else can you have faith in except those things?

    Periodically, a bird alights on Charlie’s windowsill, and we, along with Charlie, draw a deep, satisfying breath. The Whale may not offer answers, but it does offer coping mechanisms, reprieves that allow us to keep doing the heavy lifting involved in love, care, and honesty in the face of the unknown and the uncontrollable.

    Laura Valenza
    Laura Valenza
    Laura Valenza is a film editor at the Brooklyn Rail. She has also published short fiction in Gulf Coast, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @ljvalenza.

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