The Whale: The Impossible Quest For Honesty

I don’t believe anyone is capable of not caring.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the hardest thing there is. To truly reflect and to consider holistically everything around you. To be honest with yourself often opens challenges and difficult decisions, to be honest with yourself is to actually stand up and face your existence. The very notion of such a thing can be unbearable. We are the sum of our experiences and decisions, often constructed by impulse and influence, built on regret and trauma and tragedy, the many dimensions of pain that we would rather not return to. So it’s easier to remain in the shelters we create for ourselves. Within the little bubbles, whether it is to section off our mental state and willfully ignore honesty or whether it is to stay at home and simply imagine that the outside world doesn’t exist. To pretend that the outside is nothing but shadowy figures, ghostly apparitions passing by the drawn shutters, faceless and nameless. If you don’t have to face them, you may not have to face yourself.

Within the confines of a small dingy apartment, surfaces covered in a thin layer of grime and dust and left in a general state of dimly lit uncleanliness, one man’s complete refusal to face his truth has sent him in a downward spiral into hopeless oblivion. Now his state has reached a fever pitch, the remaining options are to either face himself or face certain death. As the clock ticks on his final week, the truth comes closer and closer, begging for one moment of clarity long enough to save Charlie (Brendan Fraser) from his own self-destructive agony. Everyone around him endeavors to save him – his closest friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau), his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), and religious zealot Thomas (Ty Simpkins) comprising the bulk of his visitors over the week the film takes place within, each with their own motivations but all desperate for Charlie to be as honest with himself as he asks of everyone around him.

The Whale. Dir. Darren Aronofsky.

The Whale is a thoroughly miserable parable that paints a vivid portrait of emotional turmoil and escalating suffering, masterfully directed and precision tooled at every turn but overworked and bloated with asinine and obvious allegory. All maybe par for the course for Darren Aronofsky to be so undeniably moving while simultaneously so frustratingly rote and overly steeped in excess misery, but Brendan Fraser’s Charlie seems to constantly run up against the film’s constricting formality, a performance desperate to escape the confines of its stilted screenplay. The theatricality of Samuel D. Hunter’s adapted script never quite manages to naturalize itself in the way the cinematic flow requires, leaving a film as stale as the air in Charlie’s apartment despite the thematically rich content it portrays.

It is agonizingly obsessed with its own ideas, taking a handful of theoretically poetic concepts and working them into a scattered mess of redundant dialogue, consistently more interested in finding new ways to state the film’s thesis through heavy-handed allegory rather than allow the characters to truly find honesty or development in each other. It wants us to understand Charlie’s realized mirror image within the student essay about “Moby Dick” he holds so dear, it wants us to understand Aronofsky’s complex relationship with religion, it wants us to understand the anguish and turmoil of grief, it wants us to understand that Charlie cares so deeply about everyone around him that he has completely abandoned himself in the process. More often than not, it works, because the universal resonance of its ideas is elegantly translated through Aronofsky’s lithe direction and Fraser’s touching performance, but the lingering artifice of its words fails to leave a lasting impression.

Despite being trapped in the dusty, decomposing halls of Charlie’s apartment, it occasionally surfaces, with brief sequences of sunlight and freedom told through elegiac flashbacks. The film that isn’t is far more soulful than the film that is, one that only shortly arrives on the screen in order to convey more simplistic ideas while missing the fact that it could be so much more. Within these short moments is the evocation of Charlie’s pain, expressed through silence and memory, a pensive reflection of the idyllic world that once was but now feels so unbearably impossible. These brief moments of truly emotional expression lay the foundation for the film’s fever pitch finale, one final cry for honesty amongst misty eyes and decomposing relationships, everyone finally rid of their performative falsity, shedding the years of emotional walls and ascending, ever so briefly, to a place where our entrenched stubbornness and self-loathing didn’t keep us from so much happiness. It’s a spellbinding, beautiful moment that asks why everything before it couldn’t have been as liberated.


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