Darren Aronofsky has always been an interesting writer and director. He manages to make films with avant-garde spirit but also with a broader appeal. Prior to The Whale, I was familiar with his Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and The Wrestler (2008), all of which are philosophically dark tales of bleak lives, sometimes with flashes of redemption.
I’m not in the mood to discuss things in general terms. I want to discuss a few particular details of the film. The Whale supports a lot of different interpretations. Aronofsky leaves the door open to multiple readings. A few of those fault lines are what I’ll focus on here.
This is the spoiler line.
If you haven’t watched the movie yet, I recommend that you close this tab and don’t return until you have. It’s a good film and well worth your time. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, and, if you move on to the next paragraph, I surely will.
About the Ending
Most writers suck at endings. Aronofsky is great at them. The final moments of The Whale, where Charlie–the central character, brilliantly portrayed by Brendan Fraser–rises to his feet, walks toward his daughter, exchanges a smile with her and ascends, ending in a fade to white and then a brief remembrance of a family trip to the beach, before fading again to white, caught me entirely by surprise. The Whale is a realistic story, often gut-wrenchingly so. This bit at the end, which first struck me as magical realism, is, upon further consideration, actually more realism. But, in this case, we have moved into Charlie’s dying mind and are experiencing his joyful sense of reconnection with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
One ambiguity of the film is the point at which Charlie comes unmoored from this world. I would contend it occurs just prior to the moment his friend and caretaker, Liz (Hong Chau) asks him if he is feeling light-headed:
Charlie: She saved him. She wasn’t trying to hurt him. She was trying to help him.
Liz: Who are you talking about?
Charlie: He’s going home. She did that.
Charlie: She didn’t do it to hurt him, she did it to send him home.
Liz: Do you feel light-headed? Charlie, look at me.
From here on out, Charlie’s connection to this world is tenuous. And our point of view is mixed up with his own in ways that can’t be parsed out completely. Liz, a nurse, had told Charlie earlier that he would experience hallucinations as he neared death. She’s proven right.
The crescendo at the end is the most intense moment in the film. Aronofsky–and the audience–has earned it. Up until this moment, we have been bound, as Charlie himself is, to the small, dim, drab, unkempt apartment. The final moments of Charlie’s life are bathed in light. The contrast is strong and effective. The weather just outside mirrors it. The perpetual gloomy rain lifts on Charlie’s final day. We see the sun outside the open door of his apartment. In the final moments, it encircles Ellie in light, which makes her red hair–down, in this scene, unlike most others, when it it tied back–a glorious halo. The same light illuminates Charlie as he rises and takes his final steps, exchanging a final smile with his daughter before he literally ascends.
Of course, it’s unlikely that he actually rises at all. We saw him try it earlier in the film. He fails; he falls. And he’s now in an even weaker state. It’s quite likely that the triumphant rise from his chair is entirely metaphorical and entirely in his head. There’s the small possibility that some surge of endorphins and adrenaline makes the rise and the steps possible. That’s a cheerier reading. For the moment, I’m sticking with the sadder one.
There are two more bits I’d like to discuss. One is Liz’s philosophical conclusion “I don’t think I believe anyone can save anyone.” The other is the truth or falsity of the claim, made by her mother (Mary, portrayed by Samantha Morton), that Ellie is evil.
Salvation and its Discontents
Let’s start by taking Liz’s conclusion at face value. Salvation is a recurrent theme in the film. If you search the script, “save” occurs fifteen times. Salvation is a religious context is rejected, sometimes vehemently, by Ellie, Charlie, and Liz. In its place, Liz offers something else: compassion. Liz knows there is no changing Charlie. There’s no way to force him to take his health seriously. And, frankly, he’s too far gone for it to matter. What she offers instead is, essentially, palliative care and companionship.
And that, in the universe of Aronofsky’s films, as well as in our own, might be all you can hope for. If that seems harsh, so be it. We didn’t create this absurd universe. But we do have to live in it. Living in it with compassionate people is far better than living in it with selfish ones.
Is Ellie Evil?
There’s ample evidence that Ellie is not the person Charlie believes her to be. She posts a picture of her father to her social feed with the caption “There’ll be a grease fire in hell when he starts to burn.” When the post is brought to his attention, Charlie isn’t offended. He finds something positive to say about it, “She’s a strong writer.” And maintains, “This isn’t evil. This is honesty.” The plate upon which Charlie feeds his birds turns up broken. This, too, is likely Ellie’s work. Finally, while Charlie is convinced, as we saw above, that Ellie sent photographs of the missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins) to his parents so they would call him home, there’s no reason to assume this is true. It seems, rather, a fortunate outcome of what was designed to be hurtful. “Hurt people hurt people,” as they say. Ellie has a right to be angry with Charlie. But she seems to be angry with everyone, and unapologetically so.
Of course, “evil” is a step too far, as it implies an essence which can never change. And, while very little change happens in the film, the one character who might, paradoxically, have a shot at it is Ellie. She’s young, after all. She’s had an intense if brief reconnection of sorts with her father, right up until the moment of his death. He has finally apologized in a sincere and believable way for the harm he has caused her, and he’s done his best to bolster her confidence in herself. How it will work out with Ellie is anyone’s guess. But, if there is an optimistic note, here, it is with her.