Last night I saw The Whale. I’m going to assume you know the basics about the movie. I’ll probably spoil a bit of it too, because I don’t know how to talk about things without talking about the thing. So be warned.
Also, obligatory CW for weight talk and fatphobia.
I enjoyed the film quite a bit–Brendan Fraser was excellent and captivating, Hong Chau was even more so (and I didn’t recognize her from The Menu! Such different characters, I love it). Everyone else did fine jobs, if a little theatrical. The script was clearly a play turned into a movie by the guy who wrote the play.
Side note: The movie/play was written by Samuel D. Hunter, who is an north Idaho native (hence the Moscow, ID references). He writes a lot of plays about Idaho and is kind of a theatrical celebrity there. I didn’t know he wrote this but to be fair he did write it around 2013, a few years after I left Idaho. Plus if Wikipedia is correct it never premiered anywhere in Idaho. (I’m fairly certain some of his later plays did premiere in Idaho though.) I have … thoughts about this, about a man who grew up in Idaho writing plays on the east coast about Idaho and having very few of those plays ever premiere in Idaho. I honestly don’t know if that’s a fault of Sam or of the dearth of spaces for world premiere plays by a Julliard graduate in Idaho.
In any case, this is a play/film about a very obese man in the last few days of his life. He is taken care of by his widow’s sister, Liz, and is visited by his estranged daughter, Ellie, a New Life church dude, Thomas, and eventually his ex-wife, Mary. Again, many of these interactions feel more theatrical than film, with the exception of Charlie and Liz, who feel like two people who are in a situation together.
That’s probably not very clear; what I mean is that sometimes when two characters appear in plays, they talk to each other in these sort of psychological status games because in a play, there aren’t many other pressures out there. In a film, you can have a scene where a man is trapped in a sinking submarine and the water is rising and about to drown him. That is a pressure outside of man. (Man vs Nature, I suppose.) You can’t really do that in a play, so plays (especially contemporary/”realism”/living room plays) tend to have characters talking to each other a lot and trying to win, or not win, in the case of Ellie, who is clearly a foil to Charlie and written so abruptly unlike him that it’s a little jarring. It’s one thing to be angsty and 14, and another thing entirely to be angsty and 17. Hunter does set up the reason why she’s like this (or a reason, at least), but it still feels like the raw angst of a younger teen.
There is also a lot of symbolism in this film, some of it very overt, which again feels like it’s straight out of a play. Charlie needing to hear his daughter’s essay before he dies is a good example. That sounds like a necessity born out of a play. It’s not a bad idea, per se, it just feels strange from a film perspective. Though, it is also a film about a man who clearly cannot or does not want to leave his house, so him having something close to cling to in his final hours makes sense. (The reveal of him having $120k in the bank also feels theatrical, but I digress.)
Alright let’s talk about the elephant, or whale, if you will, in the room: Charlie’s fatness. Charlie is 600lbs and has, at least, a disordered eating disorder, or, at worst, a food addiction. I think it’s the latter, since it is obviously affecting the people around him and he cannot and does not want to quit. A lot of people who hate this film criticize it for fatphobia. Specifically, some people seem to think that Darren Aronofsky and/or Samuel Hunter are fatphobic. I’ve seen critiques that Aronofsky’s lingering shots of Charlie’s obesity are an example of this.
So, I’ve never been 600lbs, but I have been 308lbs, as late as August of 2022. I’ve always had issues with food, which I won’t go into great detail about, but which resulted in me being fairly overweight my entire life, with a few exceptions where I was a decent weight but thought I was overweight because, you know, mental health issues. There are a couple of scenes in The Whale where Charlie binge eats, and Aronofsky intentionally alters the shot during these moments, and I think people are getting the wrong idea about why he’s doing this.
Lately I’ve been talking with my therapist about my own binge eating, and why I do it. It took some steps to get here–not out of fear, but out of my own brain literally having to make new connections to find the links. Ironically, before I watched The Whale I had binged on some ramen. I love eating ramen raw with the seasoning sprinkled on top. It’s my weird guilty pleasure. I’ve been mostly embarrassed by this until one day I was at H Mart (an Asian grocery store if you don’t know) and saw that you can buy packages of crushed up ramen noodles with seasoning as a snack. So fuck embarrassment, Asians have been doing this for a while! But since I eat it dry, I can down like three or four of them without breaking a sweat.
Anyway, one of my “breakthroughs” if you will was after I learned about “parts” and parts integration. It’s a whole other blog post to talk about parts but the gist is that some psychologists believe that our brain has different “parts” or centers which are initially separate when we’re kids but eventually form a cohesive whole. This is an explanation for why Dissociative Identity Disorder exists: because if you are subjected to intense trauma at an age prior to when your parts integrate, they literally can remain separate, forming different personalities, some of whom exist solely to shield other parts of you from that trauma. That is a simplified way of explaining it, of course; I am not a psychologist.
At some point in the past couple of years, I came to realize that when I binge eat, my desire to do so does not come from my frontal, higher reasoning lobe. It is an impulsive, lizard brain thing — a different part of my brain, if you will. And that part somehow shuts down my higher reasoning brain and before I know it, I’ve finished two bags of gummy bears and a bag of Doritos. It’s like a stupor.
When I see Aronofsky shift the camera slightly when Charlie begins to binge eat, I interpret it as this shift, from higher, reasoning Charlie to impulsive, protective Charlie. The way he looks like he’s zoned out when he’s eating is the same kind of weird zen-esque mental state I get into when I binge eat. In other words, I don’t think those scenes are fatphobic. I think they are an equivalent to the scene of the alcoholic getting drunk. They are Charlie’s coping mechanism, and Liz knows this (even if she’s a bit of an enabler).
There are other scenes where it feels like Aronofsky is playing with the grandeur of Charlie’s size, such as when he stands up for the first time and there’s this swell of music and we see just how big Charlie really is. This seems a little more fatphobic but also, in a strange way, feels like a sort of nod of respect to the human body. Like, science and biology aside, it is wild that we can become 600lbs. I’m not saying that with distaste at all. It’s a miracle that we can achieve that, just like it’s a miracle that some guy can run a 200mi ultramarathon. And both of those extremes can veer toward death. There is I think an obvious moderation between being extremely fat and extremely thin, or being extremely lazy and being extremely fit. But to watch people achieve the extremes is truly extraordinary. The human body is amazing.
It’s absolutely terrible that people treat fat people with the level of vitriol and disrespect that they do. I was fortunate that my 308lbs seemed to hang on my body in such a way that nobody said anything about it, but I could see it, and feel it. And, in a way, I was unfortunate that nobody said anything. I wish people had, in hindsight. I probably would’ve hated it at the time, but it would’ve been nice if someone had said, “Hey, you look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, is everything alright?”
One of the things I liked about The Whale is how everyone (besides Ellie) truly cared for Charlie. Charlie was the only one who didn’t care about himself, but Liz and Thomas and even Dan the delivery driver cared about him. I think Ellie did too, at the end. It was just one of those nice reminders that people are generally looking out for you, but it’s hard to see that if you’re not looking out for yourself.
Other people commented about why an obese actor wasn’t cast as Charlie. I feel like seeing Charlie in the movie explains why. Imagine being 600lbs, waking up early every morning and going to a film shoot for 10-12 hours for a month. Charlie could barely stand on his own and you’re going to ask a real 600lbs person to attempt to stand on their own for several takes? I know that people want representation in film and media but I don’t think this is the fight, because in reality being in a film takes a lot of hard work and dedication that, honestly, go against the lifestyle of most 600lb people. I’ll probably catch some flak for saying that but it’s true. You don’t get to 600lbs by doing things, that’s the whole point.
Also, think of all the 600lb people in the world and how many of them would’ve given the level of acting that Fraser did. Aronofsky already spent 10 years trying to find the perfect Charlie, don’t you think he spent at least some of that time looking at casting an actual fat person in the role?
Anyway. The last bit of criticism I read is that Fraser did okay but people are lauding his performance because it’s his big comeback. I think this is a shitty thing to think and I hope I never have to hang out with those critics because they suck.
I just wanted to write this as someone who has dealt with my weight my entire life, and dealt with binge eating and how I felt that was portrayed in this movie. Which I thought was well made and well thought out. I think the movie suffers in other ways (part of me wishes it was just a Charlie & Liz film) but by the end of the film I was awestruck and had to sit with my thoughts for a while. I think it’s worth a watch. Charlie is a difficult man to watch at times but I think it’s important to humanize fat people. We don’t need to put fat people up on a pedestal, we need to show them being human. I think Darren Aronofsky does a decent job of that in this film.