Herman Mellivilles Moby Dick features Captain Ahab, a man whose life has been consumed in his hunt for the titular White Whale. This piece of historic literature features heavily at the centre of director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, and that may seem odd at first. Why place a story about man’s hunt for the seemingly unattainable into a film about an obese man trying to reconcile with his daughter before he dies? The answer is in the question (his daughter’s love is the unattainable asset) , but it goes much deeper than that and applies to so much more of his life.
Charlie, the man in question, has not only grown exceptionally large since the death of his boyfriend Alan sometime before the events of the film but he has also become a recluse. Seemingly his only friend is Liz, who happens to be a nurse and takes as much care of him as he will allow. He finds purpose in the online literature class that he teaches over video calls, though he never uses his camera so as to keep his appearance from his students. As he nears the end of his life, he attempts to reconnect with his 17 year old daughter Ellie, who is deliberately flunking school despite being incredibly smart. Also in the mix is young door-to-door preacher Thomas, who hopes to aid Charlie, or rather to allow God to aid Charlie through him.
As Ahab hunts Moby Dick, so too does Charlie hunt his daughter’s approval. Having been absent for half her life, he is riddled with guilt, but also believes that she needs his guidance now more than ever. However, the story applies to himself too. His eating has become self destructive, and becomes more so as the film reaches its conclusion. Yes, the title of “The Whale” could refer to his weight but I don’t believe it to be as crass as that. The Whale in question is his own demise and Charlie is Ahab. No longer does he wish to live, a sentiment that becomes clearer as those around him, including his former wife, become frustrated with him. The inevitability of his death is all-encompassing and he has accepted that.
The film never shies away from this. Charlie ocassionally asks those around him if he disgusts them and his binge eating is frequent. It’s never glamourised and, at times, feels like a scene from a horror movie as he devours food the way that a zombie would desperately devour brains. It hauntingly mirrors the story of the death of his partner Alan, who had stopped eating entirely. It’s a stark reminder that eating disorders come in several different forms and they can all be as destructive as each other. If this film has any takeaways, and it has several, that’s the main one that feels like it will get lost in the mountain of meanings.
Don’t be the Ahab to your own great whale.