Darren Aronofsky’s latest film The Whale has made a splash, both for Brendan Fraser’s heart-wrenching portrayal of the 600-pound Charlie and for critics’ accusations of fatphobia in the film.
Fatphobia, like other forms of bigotry, insists that only certain bodies are whole and good — in this case, only thin bodies are presented as healthy. But Aronofsky frames Charlie’s struggles within the Passion story — the last week of Jesus’ life; doing so opens a space to read the film as a critique of our fatphobic society, wherein the way we recoil at Charlie’s body implicates us in the violence against him.
Aronofsky’s films have always employed Jewish and Christian imagery to powerful effect. The Wrestler’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Black Swan’s provocative depiction of Genesis 3, Noah, and mother!’s fever dream reimagining of the biblical timeline, Aronofsky regularly weaves themes, characters, and storylines from the Bible into his films. Often, these themes are subtle enough that they’re not apparent until revisiting the film.
The Whale doesn’t seem, at first blush, to be ripe for biblical interpretation. It’s the story of Charlie, a 600-pound gay man who, because he refuses to seek medical help, will die by the week’s end. An adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, the film has only four other major actors aside from Fraser, and it all takes place at the cramped, cluttered confines of Charlie’s apartment.
Subtle clues abound, however, that the Bible is not far from the film’s script. The evangelical missionary who decides to save Charlie’s soul while hiding a dark past of his own is Thomas (Ty Simpkins) of doubting fame. Charlie’s sister (in-law-ish) and best friend is E(Liz)abeth (Hong Chau). His ex-wife is Mary (Samantha Morton), and their rude and crude daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) suggest she might be the product of a profane “virgin birth.” (“What’s more surprising: that a gay man had a kid, or that someone could find his penis?” She asks, her voice dripping with disdain.)
And then there’s the framing: the film opens on MONDAY and clearly, carefully counts down the days until Charlie’s death. The events of Charlie’s last week lightly mirror those of Jesus’ final days. (Though it’s worth noting that even the gospels’ accounts of the Passion week don’t align perfectly.)
Monday: Charlie receives his death sentence and Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple turns Jerusalem against him, galvanizing his opponents’ commitment to eliminate him. Tuesday: Charlie washes himself and Jesus is anointed at Bethany. Wednesday: Liz and Thomas debate theology, wrestling over the fate of Charlie’s soul, and Jesus debates the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Temple. Thursday: Charlie and Jesus each have a last supper. Judas betrays and Peter denies Jesus, and Charlie too deals with denials and betrayals — from Dan the pizza man, Ellie, and Thomas (and Charlie’s own betrayal of Liz). Then, of course, Charlie and Jesus die on Friday.
But why link Charlie to Jesus? Especially when Charlie is far from sinless — he abandoned his ex-wife and daughter when he came out, leaving them for a young man who took the night class he taught; he misled his best friend Liz for years about how much money he had; and his last supper is very far from a Eucharist meal.
The suffering servant
The first Christians, in trying to make sense of a Messiah who was crucified, found resonance in the “suffering servant” of Second Isaiah. This illustration of God’s ideal follower offers provocative images of faithfulness to a people trying to find meaning in the wake of the cultural apocalypse we now call the Exile. To them, the prophet describes this ideal servant of God:
“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:2-3).
God’s ideal servant, according to Isaiah, is one of whom the larger world is embarrassed. The servant’s way of being in the world is disgusting to those who encounter them.
No wonder Jesus’ followers found echoes of his ministry in Second Isaiah. Other religious leaders found his solidarity with tax collectors and sinners disgusting. Pilate couldn’t comprehend a kingdom whose king refused to fight. Jesus’ way of being in the world, the way God created for all of us, is so radically counter to the ways of empire that the powers cannot help but crucify the servant — they are too revolting to be allowed to live.
Thus, Jesus’ critique of the crucifying powers is that their violence is self-evident. By living a fully human life among them, and allowing them to react in violence, Jesus creates a spectacle of them, to paraphrase Colossians 2:15.
So too with The Whale. The film goes out of its way to have each ancillary character declare their lack of disgust with Charlie’s body. Liz leans against him in multiple scenes, demonstrating the only physical intimacy Charlie experiences in the film. Ellie explicitly tells Charlie that it’s not his weight that disgusts her, but his abandoning of her a decade earlier. Even Mary, Charlie’s long-estranged ex-wife, expresses pity rather than disgust when she sees him.
But perhaps the film’s most trenchant condemnation of bigotry comes in Thomas’ final confrontation with Charlie. After finding the Bible of Charlie’s dead partner, Thomas believes he’s found the key to converting Charlie to evangelicalism. He promises Charlie that if he simply repents of his gayness, God will deliver him and help him live. When Charlie rejects Thomas’ advances, Thomas finally confesses his disgust of Charlie: It’s not because of Charlie’s weight, but rather his queerness that Thomas finds him to be an object of scorn.
Charlie rejects the salvation Thomas offers — from both his fat body and his gay body. He rejects a salvation that would separate him from himself or his beloved (who Thomas assures Charlie is condemned). In doing so, Charlie rejects the sort of society that insists salvation only comes to those who are thin (or straight, or cisgendered, or white, or male.).
Jesus’ Passion week was a critique of the crucifying society. God did not create a world so that we could crucify each other. It was not Jesus who was disgusting, but the society so bent away from its creator that it could do no other than crucify God in their midst. It was not the “suffering servant” who was disgusting, but the conquering society surrounding them who declared the sacred and beautiful to be profane and ugly.
Ultimately, The Whale introduces us to a man who has internalized the disgust of a culture that views him as monstrous. By telling Charlie’s final week through Jesus’ Passion, the film opens space for us to ask if we regard Charlie as a man made in God’s image, a man whom Jesus is near. Or, as we witness Charlie’s Passion, are we too embedded in a culture that marginalizes bodies that don’t conform to the unreachable airbrushed ideals? Are we the crucifying society?