This is an online article from the Christian Research Journal.
For further information or to support the Christian Research Journal please click here.
When you support the Journal, you join the team of to help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever growing database of over 1,500 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.
Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10 which is the cost for some of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter
Produced by Jeremy Dawson, Ari Handel, Darren Aronofsky
Distributed by A24
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton
(Rated R, 2022)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Whale.**
“I need to know that I have done one thing right with my life!” wails Charlie (Brendan Fraser), the main character of Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-winning 2022 feature, The Whale. The line, spoken during a powerful scene toward the film’s climax, becomes a kind of thesis statement for the picture, a perfect encapsulation of everything that haunts Charlie, the engine driving his motivations throughout the film. Charlie is a man adrift, lost, and tossed upon the black waters of a hellish sea of loneliness and self-flagellation. And he is a tragic figure precisely because this is a hell of his own making, a semi-conscious (there are parts of himself he does not fully understand) choice to self-destruct, regardless of the toll it takes on those who care for him the most.
Buried beneath a mountain of make-up and prosthetics so that he is nigh unrecognizable, Brendan Fraser has earned no small amount of acclaim for his portrayal of Charlie. The Whale, filmed on a $3 million budget (pocket change by the standards of modern Hollywood), first began making waves when Fraser received a highly publicized six-minute standing ovation at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere.1 The role has since netted him “Best Actor” accolades from outlets as varied as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Academy Awards. But for all the acclaim that The Whale has received, perhaps its most important aspects are those overlooked by the vast majority of critics. The focus on Charlie’s homosexuality and the flaws of the Christian missionary attempting to proselytize him overlook the haunting themes of sin and guilt, as well as Charlie’s terrible need for absolution, which permeate Aronofsky’s film from first frame to last.
From Stage to Screen. The Whale began life as a play written by Juilliard alum Samuel D. Hunter, who took the material and converted it into the screenplay that Aronofsky directed. He has maintained throughout interviews and in his own reflections that the narrative of The Whale originated from a desire to write “something honest,” and that took the form of “all that stuff I had pushed way down about growing up gay in Idaho, attending a fundamentalist Christian school, battling depression and subsequently self-medicating with food in my late teens and early 20s.”2
The building blocks that would eventually be assembled into The Whale are all right there in Hunter’s description; however, there is one key difference between his original play and the film adaptation. In the original play, the character that represents the religious fundamentalism that Hunter references is a Mormon missionary; in the film adaptation, this character has been changed to an “evangelical” Christian.3 Hunter is quoted by The Austin Chronicle as stating that the decision to make the character a Mormon originally was “a bit of an act of self-protection,” but that the decision to make the character a Christian for the screenplay was his way of making the story more personal and true to his own experience; perhaps, in some ways, the screenplay is a more “honest” work than the original play.4
As a result, The Whale is a remarkable film in the sense that it is one of the few major releases in recent memory that actually wants to interact with faith. Of course, there are a good number of “faith-based” and “Christian” films released every year that cater specifically to people with strong religious convictions. However, it is no secret that the vast majority of these films are shallow and lack nuance, born of gushy sentimentality rather than anything resembling reality.5 The Whale, by contrast, prioritizes complex character development and leans into the nuances of faith (perhaps a little too heavily) to present a tight diorama of believers, doubters, and non-believers all interacting in the confined space of Charlie’s apartment over the period of a week.
Faith and Family. Yet for all the film’s complexities, The Whale is very much a movie “of the moment.” Charlie’s eating disorder is revealed to be a coping mechanism, a kind of self-medication in the wake of the suicide of his partner, Alan. Though he is not seen in person in the film, the residual memory of him haunts the edges of the film in practically every frame. It turns out Charlie left his wife and daughter to be with Alan, who was the son of the pastor of a megachurch — the same megachurch from which comes the missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Charlie’s daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), still resents him, and the film’s central tension is between father and daughter as Charlie works to repair this all-important relationship before he dies.
Because of Charlie and Alan’s relationship, and Alan being driven to suicide after his family (and the church) rejected him, many Christian film critics have taken issue with the film. “If Charlie is meant to be a sort of Christ figure,” writes Brett McCracken, “his gospel message is one of authenticity and ‘love is love’ sexual freedom.”6 While it is certainly true that there are Christ-type elements to Charlie’s character, this reading of the film (which seems to be the predominant reading among Christian critics) seems to miss the fundamental point that the film makes: when Charlie left his family to be with Alan, perhaps his “gospel message” was one of “‘love is love’ sexual freedom”; yet this fantasy is shattered against reality in the wake of Alan’s death, and Charlie spends the duration of the movie trying to pick up the pieces and rearrange his priorities.
When Charlie tells his ex-wife that he needs to know that he has done one thing right with his life, he is not talking about his relationship with Alan, but about his relationship with Ellie. If anything, the film frames Charlie’s decision to leave his family to be with Alan as something that was, ultimately, wrong. And this despite how Charlie felt in the moment, even though Charlie says the years he spent with Alan were the best of his life. As Charlie dies, the last moments that flash through his mind are the moments he spent on the beach with his wife and daughter, and not the years he spent with Alan — that is a kind of championing of the nuclear family unit that is uncommon in many mainline motion pictures today. And to put that message in the context of a man who struggled with homosexuality — written by a practicing homosexual, no less — The Whale honestly feels less resentful of the church and Christianity and far more subversive and quietly rebellious against many of today’s cultural norms.
In the aforementioned article in The Austin Chronicle, Richard Whittaker writes that what Aronofsky and Hunter do with The Whale is “redefine the religious movie.”7 This is a keen insight. Faith and family are the two major themes in this film, just like any number of the shallow faith-based (i.e., “religious”) films released every year. The difference is that The Whale comes at these topics through the lens of “religious trauma,” with all the conviction of a writer who, in part, lived the experiences of the characters.8 The result is a compelling film that simmers with a quiet intensity and manages to evoke genuine emotions because it is, in more than one way, a kind of autobiographical piece.
Sin and Salvation. Charlie’s relationship to the Christian faith is a complicated one. At no point does Charlie profess to follow Jesus, yet he demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with religious texts. He does not question the genuineness of his feelings toward Alan, yet he is a man consumed with guilt and seeking absolution, because he understands that, on some level, his actions were wrong. Whether this sense of guilt was because of sin against God or because of the pain he caused his family, or some combination thereof, is left up to the viewer. When Thomas quotes Romans to him and suggests that Alan’s death was a judgment from God because he was a homosexual, Charlie shuts down the conversation with an unnerving calmness.
This is the area in which the Christian can justifiably level criticism of the film. Though The Whale tackles issues of sin, faith, homosexuality, and the family unit, there is no sense in which it lands the plane on any particular runway. The film is most certainly not the all-out assault on the church that some critics seem to think it is, but at the same time, it is still a product of the modern Hollywood machine. Charlie does not find Jesus, and Thomas’s final Hail Mary to convert him comes across as distasteful and selfish (and this is less a criticism of evangelism than a criticism of a particular kind of evangelistic attempt). The more interesting approach here would be to have the missionary aged up and intelligent, rather than young and naïve; alas, that would change the texture of the piece and Thomas’s character arc altogether. Still, Thomas’s youthful and immature expression of faith gets in the way of what actually could have been a genuine conversation about the gospel and a fascinating discussion of how to reconcile honest emotions with the fact that the Bible does condemn homosexuality as a sin (Romans 1:26–27).9
Nevertheless, The Whale is a film that is interested in the complexities of faith in a modern context, and that makes it worth paying attention to. Material abounds here for the Christian apologist or evangelist to take hold of and step into conversations with people struggling with homosexuality and feelings of guilt and depression. It would be unwise to ignore a movie that really does seem to be interested in interacting with people of the Christian faith, especially when the broader culture is so uninterested in what Christians have to say.
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes for high school and college students in Bible exposition and systematic theology. He also writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
- Ayana Archie, “Brendan Fraser Sheds Tears for a Standing Ovation at the Premiere of His Comeback Role,” NPR, September 5, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/09/05/1121100965/brendan-fraser-standing-ovation-the-whale.
- Samuel D. Hunter, “Writer Samuel D. Hunter Digs Deep to Let Loose His Truth for ‘The Whale’,” LA Times, December 26, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-12-26/samuel-hunter-essay-writing-the-whale.
- There seems to be some degree of misunderstanding on the part of many critics regarding the use of the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” The history of these two terms and how they interface with one another are intrinsically tied to the American religious landscape. To see how Steve Waldman and John Green discuss the uses of each term in an early twenty-first century American context, check out “Evangelicals vs. Fundamentalists,” The Jesus Factor, Frontline, December 5, 2003, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jesus/evangelicals/vs.html.
- Samuel D. Hunter, quoted in Richard Whittaker, “Faith and Fatness in The Whale,” The Austin Chronicle, December 23, 2022, https://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2022-12-23/faith-and-fatness-in-the-whale/.
- For an analysis of the many artistic issues with “Christian” films, see Jared C. Wilson, “Why Christian Movies Are So Terrible,” For the Church, December 17, 2018, https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/why-christian-movies-are-so-terrible/.
- Brett McCracken, “Villainous Christianity in ‘The Whale,’ ‘The Wonder,’ and ‘Women Talking’,” TGC, January 27, 2023, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/villainous-christianity-movies/.
- Whittaker, “Faith and Fatness in The Whale.”
- Alissa Wilkinson, “The Whale Screenwriter on Writing about Religious Fundamentalism, Bodies, and Hope,” Vox, December 9, 2022, https://www.vox.com/culture/23498429/whale-interview-samuel-hunter-writer-christian-oscar-winner-brendan-fraser.
- For a critical contextually accurate analysis of this passage, read Thomas R. Schreiner, “A New Testament Perspective on Homosexuality,” Themelios, vol. 31, issue 3, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/a-new-testament-perspective-on-homosexuality1/. Schreiner shows very clearly that the definition of sin does not change because of cultural contexts, despite the hermeneutical approach advocated by the Human Rights Campaign (see Myles Markham, “What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?” Human Rights Campaign, n.d., https://www.hrc.org/resources/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexuality).