The Whale

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an overweight man - The Whale

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Most every day, Dan delivers a pizza to the small second-floor apartment. Most every day, the transaction’s the same. Leave the pizza by the door. The money’s in the mailbox. Most every day, Dan leaves the pizza, takes the money and goes about his job.

Still, Dan does wonder at times who (what) lurks behind that door. He’d like to know the face behind the voice.

But would he?

Charlie doubts it.

Most every day, Charlie orders a pizza. He leaves the money in the mailbox when no one’s looking. He doesn’t want to be seen. Not now. Not like this.

His ex-wife has no idea who (or what) he’s become. It’s been years since he’s seen his daughter. Even Charlie’s students—part of an online persuasive writing class—have never seen him. He’s encouraged them to be honest in their work; painfully honest. But he has kept his own camera off. Broken, he tells them week upon week. That sort of honesty is too much.

He lives alone, of course. There’s no room in the apartment for anyone else now. Not with the misery that lives there, not with the shame. Charlie has just one real friend in the world—Liz, a nurse who stops by most every day to take his blood pressure and bring him fried chicken.

She’s virtually the only one.

Except for one other.

A missionary from a local church barged in on him one afternoon. Embarrassing, that. For one, gay porn was playing on Charlie’s laptop. For another, Charlie was about to die. Or at least it felt like it. The pain in his chest was excruciating. His breath wouldn’t come. But the missionary came in just in time. Charlie had him read a student-written essay on Moby Dick—Charlie’s favorite essay—and the pain eased. The breath came easier. Just like it always did when he read that essay.

But the missionary took it as a sign from God, and now he keeps coming back.

He can’t know that Charlie’s beyond saving. That Charlie’s time on this Earth is short. 

Most every day now might be Charlie’s last. And while his world is small and his hopes are few, Charlie means to do one last thing: reconnect with his daughter.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

If you’re reading this review, you’ve seen the trailers. You’ve seen the posters. You know that Charlie’s a big man. But as clichéd as this sounds (enough of a cliché that Charlie would probably give me a bad grade on this review), his heart is just about as big as his big ol’ self.

Charlie is one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. Even when he’s mad, he argues with grace and tenderness—and he’s hardly ever mad. Indeed, you kinda wish that he would get angrier at times.

That’s especially true when it comes to his daughter, Ellie. She’s deeply troubled, and her own mom calls her “evil”—a descriptor that Ellie seems determined to live up to. She can be especially cruel to Charlie.

But Charlie sees something more in Ellie than anyone else—even Ellie herself.

“You’re an amazing person, Ellie,” Charlie tells her. “I couldn’t ask for a more incredible daughter.” He repeats those sentiments again and again, even when all evidence suggests otherwise. Just as Charlie’s nurse, Liz, sees the good man underneath all Charlie’s flab, so Charlie sees the beauty in his daughter—the possibilities underneath her spite and bitter-beyond-her-years persona.

While Charlie has enough heart, it seems, for everybody he meets, Liz has just heart enough for Charlie. She’s fiercely protective of her friend and favorite patient, shooing off anyone she feels might hurt him. And while Liz likely enables some of Charlie’s bad habits, we can’t doubt her devotion.

Finally, we get to Thomas, the missionary. His role here is a difficult one, as we’ll see. But he seems truly committed (especially at first) to helping Charlie, both in body and soul.

Spiritual Elements

The Whale is as much about religion as it is obesity (and sexuality, as we’ll see). But before delving into this area, a reminder … spoilers follow.

Thomas is a missionary from what seems to be a big evangelical church in town. (In the original stage play, the missionary was a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, but that Mormon connection has been replaced by evangelical Christianity here.) When he saves Charlie’s life, Thomas feels like God brought him there in just that moment for a reason. Naturally, Thomas comes back again and again, hoping to “help,” hoping that God will work through him.

Liz doesn’t want Thomas around Charlie, and here’s why. We learn that Charlie’s gay partner, Alan, was also a member of the same church that Charlie claims to go to (more on that claim later). Alan came from a deeply religious family, and he embraced that brand of conservative Christianity, too. His homosexual leanings and his relationship with Charlie ran headlong into his faith, and the film suggests that his inability to reconcile the two leads to Alan’s tragic death. (Thomas later finds Alan’s Bible with a Scripture circled and highlighted, suggesting this spiritual and sexual struggle.)

That verse, where Paul writes about separating the flesh from the spirit, strikes Thomas as the key to how he’s supposed to be helping Charlie. He excitedly reads the verse to Charlie—telling him he merely has to separate himself from his “flesh” to be set free.

“You think that Alan died because he chose to be with me?” Charlie asks. When Thomas answers yes, their relationship goes downhill.

But Thomas is dealing with his own crisis of conscience. Turns out, he doesn’t belong to the local church at all (which we learn abandoned its missionary work a couple of years ago). He did belong to a different church in another state, but he was at odds with the leadership, dealing with a drug problem and his own shame. He wound up stealing money from his church and traveling across the Midwest, believing that if he could just “save one person,” he’d be himself redeemed. But he’s running out of money.

Someone betrays his secrets, though, contacting both his old church and his parents. It proves to be the best thing that could’ve happened to Thomas: His parents tell Thomas that they love him still encourage the prodigal to come back to them. In a roundabout way, you could say that (in the film’s theology) God did bring Thomas into Charlie’s life for a reason: to heal Thomas’s broken relationships.

We learn that Charlie, while not religious, has read through the Bible a “couple of times.” When he and Thomas discuss the book of Revelation, Charlie calls it “devastating”—interpreting it as saying that billions of people will die while only 144,000 are saved. (Thomas says he doesn’t interpret the passages in Revelation quite like that.)

Ellie posts a picture of her father on social media. “There will be a grease fire in hell when he starts to burn,” she writes.

Sexual Content

Charlie nearly dies while masturbating to gay porn on his computer. We see the clip play on the screen a couple of times. It’s obvious what the two men onscreen are doing, but nothing critical is shown.

Charlie’s relationship with Alan was long-term and monogamous: It was only after Alan died that Charlie began to seriously overeat (though he admits that he was always “big”). The bedroom they apparently shared has remained pristine and untouched, almost like a shrine. Charlie tells Thomas about his and Alan’s physical relationship in some (but not graphic) detail.

Charlie was apparently having an affair with Alan even while he was married to his wife, Mary. That betrayal impacted Ellie mightily, and Mary’s still bitter about it, too).

We see Charlie take a shower. Though he’s completely naked and we see him from the front, his fat covers any privates that would otherwise be on display. We see him shirtless on occasion, too. Ellie seems to have a crush of sorts on Thomas. But her interest goes down a pretty horrific path, as she eventually threatens to tell people that Thomas tried to rape her unless he tells her his secrets.

Violent Content

Charlie’s heart is failing. We see him suffer a couple of close calls, and he admits to Liz that the pain is far more common and constant now. He struggles to stand unaided, and when Ellie forces him to walk toward her without the help of a walker, he collapses to the ground. He’s determined not to see a doctor.

Ellie posts pictures of dead animals on social media. Charlie conscientiously feeds a bird outside his window. One day, he turns to the window and sees the plate he used to feed the bird is shattered into dozens of pieces—and he knows, of course, that Ellie did it. We learn that Alan starved himself to death.  

An exasperated Liz threatens to stab Charlie in the gut. Charlie tells her that it wouldn’t do much, given that any vital organs are a foot or two away from his outer skin.

Crude or Profane Language

We hear about two dozen f-words and nearly 10 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch” and “f-ggot.” God’s name is misused eight times (twice with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused three times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Ellie essentially forces Thomas to smoke marijuana, a substance that Thomas tells her was “kind of a problem” for him before. He clearly doesn’t want to engage in the behavior, but once he starts, he asks if he can continue to take puffs of the blunt (much to Ellie’s perverse joy).

Ellie’s mom, meanwhile, has a problem with alcohol. Ellie complains about how much she drinks. And when Mary comes by Charlie’s apartment, one of the first things she asks is if he keeps any alcohol in the house. (He does. Charlie tells her where it is, and she drinks for much of the rest of the scene.)

We should also note the other addictive element in this cinematic room: food. Charlie’s relationship with food is the same as that of a longtime alcoholic with booze or an addict with drugs: It is a source of both shame and solace from that shame; the reason for his misery and the only thing that can make him less miserable. We see him struggle with it at times. Other times, very consciously, he gives in.

Other Negative Elements

Ellie is a piece of work. She’s ruthless and vicious, agreeing to spend time with her father (who’s offering to keep her from flunking English) if Charlie pays her. When she seems to turn a corner and make Charlie a sandwich, it later turns out the sandwich was drugged—allowing her to sneak about the apartment and grill Thomas without interruption. (We learn that she had ground up two Ambiens into her father’s sandwich; one more would’ve killed him.)

Conclusion

The Whale is a monster of a movie, in the best and worst of ways.

Charlie’s story is both powerful and poignant. It’s deeply moving and incredibly, horrifically sad. Played by a riveting Brandon Fraser, Charlie shows tremendous grace to those who don’t deserve it. And even as he is almost literally consumed by self-loathing—losing himself a little in every bite of fried chicken, even as his physical self grows—he sees everyone else through a sheen of optimism and love.

And let me make another note here: The religious themes we see—as complicated as they are and as scathing a verdict as they ultimately receive from the movie—are far from being a caricature. Characters’ interactions about faith feel real and, in many ways, convicting. What we hear of Alan—a man who ultimately could not reconcile his faith with his attraction to other men—is not unique. Countless men and women, some perhaps reading now, struggle with these contradictory aspects of themselves.

Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the original play, tells Vox that a lot of the religious elements came from his own personal story: “There was a lot of residual energy from my experience at my fundamentalist Christian high school, and still a very active fear of hell in my life,” he said.

One of the greatest challenges we as Christians face today is how we relate to the LGBT community, showing God’s love and grace while remaining faithful to what the Scriptures tell us to be true. This film drives that challenge home and, perhaps, encourages us to think about how we engage with those whom we disagree with.

But while Charlie is kind and filled with grace for others, we can’t lose sight of his ultimate moral Achilles heel: his selfishness.

Harsh? Perhaps. But consider the following (and again, be mindful of the spoilers to come).

Ellie (played by Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink) is brutal to her father, but some of what she says is so brutal because it’s true. “You left me for your boyfriend!” She shouts at Charlie. “It’s that simple!”

And in some ways, it is. Charlie’s affair with Alan began while he was still married. His daughter was 7 or 8 when Charlie divorced his wife and walked out of Ellie’s life. Until the events of the movie, he never walked back in. Ellie hadn’t even seen Charlie for eight years. Yes, his absence was partly a product of shame: “Who would want someone like me in their life?” Charlie tells her. But that doesn’t explain it all. And while Charlie would say that he had to leave—he needed to follow love, he needed to follow his nature—that doesn’t absolve him of the relational wreckage he left behind.

And that brings us to the movie’s title.

Time and again, the movie returns to parallels with Moby Dick, the story of a great white whale pursued relentlessly by the bitter Captain Ahab. Ahab lost a ship and a leg to the whale. The whale here is Charlie—and he, too, took a great deal from his wife and daughter when he wrecked their family and paddled off. Can all of Ellie’s own problems be pinned on her father’s abandonment and absence? There’s no way to know. But it left a mark. And the movie suggests that Ellie, like Ahab, is bent on revenge.

Another layer of Charlie’s selfishness is his addiction to food and his self-pity, character faults that keep this generous man from helping the people around him with his prodigious gifts.

Finally, we come to Charlie’s refusal to see a doctor when he knows that he’s dying—when he knows that a doctor could help him. And even as the movie turns Charlie’s impending death and weeklong relationship with Ellie into a beautifully poignant, even redemptive arc, we can’t lose sight of the new trauma that Charlie is causing the daughter he says he loves more than anything.

“I’m worried that [Ellie’s] forgotten what an amazing person she is,” Charlie tells Liz.

Charlie successfully reminds her. He showers love and attention on her. But he refuses to be there for her after this one week of reconciliation. He’d rather die—in front of her—than live for her. To set aside his own self-loathing and self-pity to be there for her, as a father should.

And then, in a beautiful-but-curious postscript, we see what the movie suggests is Charlie’s most precious memory, the last thing he wants to remember as he slips away: a day at the beach with his wife and daughter. Not a moment with Alan, but with Mary. With Ellie. The family whom he rejected. In the end, it would seem that that family—the family he left—is the one he valued most.

The Whale, obviously, has a lot of other problems: the sexual content, the language, the bad behavior. But it’s Charlie’s contradictions that stick with me the most. And his painful story reminds me that love—real love—is about sacrifice. And sometimes that sacrifice isn’t about dying for our loved ones: It’s about living for them.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.