The Whale is one of several recent films to contemplate how the gay encounter with death might look in an era where AIDS is no longer an inescapable point of reference for queer morbidity. Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, it depicts the last week in the life of a morbidly obese gay man, Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, and the various people who move in and out of his apartment, where the entire narrative unfolds. There is Liz, a nurse, and Charlie’s only friend, played by Hong Chau; Mary, his ex-wife, played by Samantha Morton; Ellie, his estranged daughter, played by Sadie Sink; and finally, Thomas, a Christian missionary, played by Ty Simpkins. Over the course of the film, we gradually piece together the details of Charlie’s life. He’s an English teacher who fell in love with Allen, Liz’s brother, the son of a pastor in the local New Life Church. Unable to reconcile his homosexuality with his family and church, Allen fell into anorexia, and eventually died from suicide, while Charlie has responded by eating so much that he can barely move around his apartment by himself. Liz tells him that his congestive heart failure is so bad that he will be dead by the weekend if he doesn’t get medical attention, and yet he refuses to go to hospital, since he wants to leave all his remaining savings to Ellie, who he tries to reconnect with over these last precious days.
The result is a profoundly contrapuntal film that oscillates between sentimentality and abjection until they feel like two sides of the same coin. In his dealings with his daughter, and with the students that he instructs online, Charlie is almost generic in the feel-good platitudes he offers about the importance of being oneself. Time and again, he tells Ellie that “I hope you know what an amazing person you are” and muses to the other characters that “I’m worried…that she’s forgotten what an amazing person she is.” Likewise, towards the end of the film, Charlie reflects, “You ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.” In his final session with his students, he shows them his face for the first time, and tells them that all the writing they have been doing is meaningless – what they should be doing is telling stories from the heart, narratives that aren’t constructed to satisfy a set of university criteria. In his teaching life, he acts like a father, and he fathers Ellie by helping her write essays, turning him into a feel-good sage, a purveyor of sentimental wisdom.
Yet this sentimental texture continually ruptures, and then reconfigures itself around, bursts of abjection and squalor. We first see this rupture in the blank space Charlie uses for his Zoom lessons, and then in the square ratio of the film, which mirrors the shape of his body and makes it harder to see him in its entirety. When we first lay eyes on him, he’s pleasuring himself to an online video of sculpted men, in stark contrast to the enormous miasma of his own body, which ripples and heaves so dramatically that he almost dies then and there, marking the start of a series of convulsions that peak in a different way with each fresh day in the narrative. On Tuesday, he almost chokes on a piece of food, on Wednesday he almost dies from laughing, and on Thursday this whole body spasm emerges when he wakes up from a sleeping pill, before he does indeed die on Friday, the first and last point in the film when he stands unaided. Charlie’s relationship to food is similarly abject. There’s always a piece of food within reach, from the soda beside his bed to the assortment of candies in a drawer beside his phone, while he only ever ventures into the outside world in the name of food as well – either by leaving food outside his window for local birds, or by recovering pizzas from his porch when he is sure the delivery man is out of visibility. Throughout all these moments, Aronofsky and Hunter build a beautiful vision of the foundational moment of binge eating – a kind of reckoning of yourself through food, which first occurs here through a KFC bucket.
Between these two polarities of sentimentality and abjection, Aronofsky and Hunter also build a cumulative picture of the dissonant experience of being queer in the world today. Queer people are more visible than ever before, but certain modes of queerness are sentimentally and socially approved. The gulf between married gay couples and polyamorous gay people, or between attractive gay people and average gay people, or between socially accepted trans icons and messier trans identities, are enormous, and galvanise a public reaction that frequently oscillates between affection and repulsion in exactly the manner that The Whale engenders from its audience. We see this dissonance in Fraser’s exquisite face acting. Since he spends virtually the entire film seated, and clad in a fat suit, his face has to do the heavy lifting here, and so it alternates between being a surface of almost unbearable emotion, and a blunter register of the efforts his body has to go through for menial tasks. Often, it’s both at once, as when a melodramatic burst of affect condenses his gaze on a (relatively) distant piece of food, and then subsumes his face into his bodily effort to attain it.
Rather than resolve this dilemma of queer lives in the present, Aronofsky and Hunter position them as part of a broader American homoerotic tradition that has thrived on precisely this situation. While Walt Whitman is a regular point of reference, it’s the textual messiness of Moby-Dick that shapes The Whale most thoroughly, as an inception point for both the film’s abject and sentimental strains. Of course, Charlie himself is whale-like, and the baldness of this metaphor is part of the film’s abject vision. Yet Charlie also regularly brings himself back from the brink of death by chanting a line from an essay about Moby-Dick, over and over again, like a mantra of the American homoerotic past: “I felt saddest of all with the description of whales – I knew the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story.” For Charlie, this line represents good writing, and authentic living, so it makes sense when it turns out to be taken from one of Ellie’s earliest essays, which he has saved and presents to her in the closing scene as the apotheosis of his aspirational lessons to her. On top of all this, his house often feels like a ship – it’s always raining outside and dim inside, full of objects sliding from side to side as he uses them as leverage, while characters pop in and out like shifting ports.
As the film proceeds, this oscillation between sentimentality and abjection takes on a more eschatological and apocalyptic quality. Queer people might have been more integrated into society over recent years, and even celebrated as harbingers of a new future, but the response from the religious right has been proportionately bitter, turning them into the loci of apocalyptic fantasies about the end of the world as we know it. In The Whale, this produces a diffuse and murky space in which everyone is looking for their own particular mission, and their own private salvation, even Liz, who claims to disbelieve that “anyone can save anyone.” The more visible queer people become, the more dramatic and violent these apocalyptic fantasies become as well, producing a scenario in which the entire future of the world, for better or for worse, can often seem like it depends upon what it means to be queer. We see a similar bind in M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin, which revolves around a family comprised of two fathers and a daughter who are told they have been “selected” to forestall a global catastrophe, and that they can only do this if one of them is killed by the other two.
In other words, both Knock at the Cabin and The Whale envisage the future as queer and contemplate what that means for queer people, who have been traditionally excluded from rhetorics of futurity. Indeed, so thoroughly have queer people been excluded from reprofuturity in particular, that in both films a queer future feels coterminous with a future that encompasses climate catastrophe – Shyamalan’s film by overtly depicting the first stages of that catastrophe, and Aronofsky’s film by relegating the outside world to constant rain and steadily accumulating water, in a distant echo of Noah, which itself coincided with a climate change adjacent superstorm during production in New York. To envisage a world beyond reprofuturity, both films suggest, we have to reckon with both the salvational and apocalyptic burden this must place upon queer people, and the way this will draw out the dissonances between sentimentality and abjection that already characterise many of their lifeworlds. And The Whale, like Knock at the Cabin, can only suspend us in the singularity of this moment, figured here as a brilliant burst of light, unable or unwilling to commit to a future beyond that.