MOVIE CLUB MEMBERS
The Cave of the Absurd
How THE WHALE Dives Way Deeper Than You Think
After dedicating two chapters to the analysis and discussion of Darren Aronofsky films in my recent book ADDICTED IN FILM, you can imagine how excited I was to see his latest film THE WHALE. I made it a point to avoid reading any articles or reviews before I saw it. For weeks leading up to the Oscars, my social media feeds were littered with posts of adulation for the film on one side, scorn on the other. Apparently Aronofsky’s work is as polarizing as our current politics, and I didn’t want to end up biased by anyone’s views.
Okay, so here’s the thing about THE WHALE: It’s actually a play shot in the form of a movie. This is by no means a critique. I love a great play, and throughout the film there were moments when I felt like I was rediscovering the verbal artistry of playwrights like Ibsen, Brecht, Chekhov (the playwright, not the Star Trek character) and Ashby all over again. The fact that a filmmaker like Aranofsky - so adept at fully leveraging every part of the filmmaker's toolkit - would choose to shoot this film in a single claustrophobic location with the camera pointed at a morbidly obese gay man throughout, is more a testament to his confidence as an artist, and less a betrayal for the fans who expect him to technically outdo himself with every new film he makes.
Play-shot-as-a-movie, movie-based-on-a-play? Who cares? Forget about all the window dressing around it, the Oscar win for Brendan Frasier, the fat suit, the accusations of “fat shaming” - at its core THE WHALE is a contemporary artistic iteration of a timeless archetypal story that weaves its way like a metaphorical sinew throughout the history of culture and humanity. In fact, the archetype extends all the way back to paleolithic times, if not earlier. During the Stone Age, the cave wasn’t just metaphorical, it was literal - as in our hominid ancestors actually lived in caves, hence the popular term “caveman.”
Caves were the primary source of security, protection and warmth for cavemen struggling to survive on a hostile planet circling an ordinary star in an average galaxy in a mercilessly indifferent universe. You’ve heard the term “a million ways to die?” That was the paleolithic. In an ideal world, cavemen could stay in their caves indefinitely and avoid an unpleasant death at the hands of a bear, saber-toothed tiger, or freezing temperatures outside. But the world is not built to be “ideal” - far from it. Unless they left the cave to find food and water, cavemen would die of starvation. The daily conundrum of humanity (literally) then and (metaphorically) now is still the same: Stay and starve, or leave and live.
The Cave metaphor has looped itself throughout history in different forms, as it does today throughout our daily lives, always expressed via a person's external and internal conflicts. A brave woman must leave the safety of her village and risk her life in a war to save her country and her way of life (external). A lonely man looking for love must emerge from the cave of his own insecurities, risk rejection, and struggle to find the love of his life (internal). The successful businesswoman with a closely guarded secret must confront the fact that she has an alcohol use disorder and seek help (internal). There are millions of permutations. And hence millions of books and movies.
The Cave is a metaphorical reflection of one of the dichotomies of human existence: Acceptance of the Status Quo, governed by weakness, inauthenticity, apathy, and defeatism - vs. - The Act of Change, fueled by courage, fortitude, authenticity, and possibility. Humans by nature strive for what is possible. It’s the reason we have iPhones and ChatGPT. Scientific illiteracy is a cave. Injustice is a cave. Sanctimony is a cave. Ignorance is a cave. Prejudice is a cave. Bad habits are caves. And of course, and decidedly, addiction is a cave. Many of us have escaped this cave and recovered successfully. Others have not. The Cave always lurks in the shadows, waiting, ready to welcome us back should we ever relapse.
Not everybody summons the courage to leave whatever caves they’ve been trapped inside - or trapped themselves inside. People can survive in a cave indefinitely, as long as they have food, water, and decent Wifi. Highly religious people remain in a cave constructed by their faith and will not venture out into skepticism or non-belief for fear of eternal hellfire. Spouses will remain in the cave of an unhappy marriage because they fear being alone on the outside. A teenager will stay in a cave of closeted homosexuality because they’re afraid their parents will kick them out of the house. A humdrum, hen-pecked British civil servant who has performed the same menial task for 40 years and never missed a day of work lives in a cave buttressed by cultural conventions and societal expectations. There is a beautiful movie about how such a man finally summons the courage to leave his cave. It’s called LIVING starring Bill Nighy (who, coincidentally, was competing against Brendan Fraser in the Best Actor category at the 2023 Oscars).
Which brings us to THE WHALE, where Brendan Fraser (who ended up beating out Nighy for that Oscar), plays Charlie, a university professor who abandoned his wife and 8-year-old daughter after he fell in love with one of his male students - Alan - who eventually contracted AIDS and committed suicide. To self-medicate over the loss, Charlie overeats. He has become morbidly obese, literally trapped in his own body in a dark, dingy apartment - and metaphorically trapped in a cave of apathy, guilt, and self-destruction. If he does not leave this cave, he will die of congestive heart failure within a week.
So Charlie, like every cave dweller before and after him, has to make a choice. But it’s not a life or death choice. Not yet. For now it’s a choice between making the choice or delaying the choice to leave the cave. Procrastination, in other words. It’s a perfectly adequate albeit temporary solution in the short term. But in the long term, it’s not feasible because the clock is ticking, the caveman’s food is running out, the addict is heading towards rock bottom, that term paper is due, and Charlie’s heart is weakening. A dead reckoning awaits. And the full knowledge of this fact causes human beings like Charlie to feel stress, anxiety and guilt over their inaction. So they resort to those coping mechanisms we all know quite well. I call them The 3Ds: Distractions, Delusions and Drugs of Choice.
People in caves are pretty adept at distracting themselves from their problems. Television, the internet, exercise, journaling, video games, sex - these are all perfectly good things to do, but they are also just a few of the myriad of ways that people put off making important decisions, decisions that lead to concrete actions to leave their caves. Charlie procrastinates with television news. I sometimes procrastinate by taking a nap.
Delusions can take many forms. Some people sit in their caves and imagine that an intercessory supernatural phenomenon will suddenly solve all their problems. They develop a sense of “hope” (or perhaps better said “faith”) that an external agent will grant them a reprieve and make the reckoning magically go away. When it doesn’t, cognitive dissonance kicks in, and adds even more psychological stress.
Other cave dwellers delude themselves into thinking that their situation “isn’t that bad,” and that they’re “not like those other people” who have similar problems. Or maybe they think that they might get “lucky” this time and avoid the reckoning. I wrote about many of these delusions in the book, especially in the chapter where I discussed REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, also directed by Aranofsky. As the starving caveman would eventually discover time and time again, basic laws of nature cannot be violated by mere wishful thinking. Food and water will not magically appear, no matter how much they beat their drums.
And lastly, if none of those other strategies work, there’s always the possibility of cave dwellers indulging in their Drug of Choice. Alcohol does the trick nicely for three quarters of a billion people worldwide, and hard drugs do it for a quarter billion. Charlie’s drug of choice is food. What is so sinister about this cave adaptation strategy is that the very drug of choice that is being used to cope with the anxiety of being trapped in The Cave is itself the architects of the cave to begin with.
Assuming a person finally buckles under the guilt and stress of indecision and inaction and makes a choice to stay or leave the cave - everything’s copacetic right? Well, that depends. One of the choices a cave dweller may make is to simply resign themselves to the fact that they don’t ever want to leave their cave. They are fully prepared to perish in it, either literally or metaphorically. This seems to be what Charlie has chosen to do in THE WHALE. He has the wherewithal to receive medical attention for his heart problem, but has decided to let his addiction to food play itself out until the very end. Faced with a choice between life or death, Charlie has unequivocally chosen death.
One of the unpleasant realities of The Cave is that some people like Charlie in THE WHALE or Ben Sanderson in the film LEAVING LAS VEGAS (Chapter 2 of my book), make a conscious choice to commit slow suicide. The reasons may be many (in Charlie’s case he has lost Alan, the love of his life), but at its core this decision is guided more by the idea that continuing to live is pointless. Furthermore, Charlie's existence is meaningless, because even life itself is meaningless. What's the point of living if the world has no meaning? Why go to so much trouble?
The issue of suicide is a dark corner of the philosophical landscape where few thinkers feel comfortable enough to tread. The notable exception is Albert Camus, the French-Algerian writer who introduced the world to Absurdism. To him, and to a lesser extent philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, the existence and purpose of the world is impossible to understand rationally, and no matter how much cave dwellers like Charlie and Ben use their reasoning capacities to find meaning within it, theirs is a Sisyphian task - hence the title of Camus’ book THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS. Faced with this reality, there are several choices people can make: Continue to bury their heads in the sand and do nothing (J.P. Sarte called this “bad faith”), commit suicide, align their existence to the whims of a higher power, or accept that existence is entirely absurd and do anything, everything, or nothing - it doesn’t matter either way.
In this context, it's possible to view Charlie’s journey in THE WHALE as a 117 minute dramatic examination of these choices being played out. The tension in the film (ie. the conflict) comes about as internal and external forces challenge Charlie’s decision to commit slow suicide. The first external challenge comes in the form of his nurse and caregiver Liz (played by the amazing Hong Chau), who tries to convince him to seek medical treatment. But Charlie sees no point in that because he's far too deep down the rabbit hole as it is (a.k.a. the dreaded "fuckits"), and his continued existence has no meaning anyway.
The next external challenge comes in the form of Thomas (played by Ty Simpkins), a Christian missionary who tries to convince Charlie to turn his life over to Christ. But Charlie is not swayed by promises of the “hereafter,” because to him even the “hereafter” is pointless - assuming it exists at all. We also learn that the evangelical, anti-LGBT church that Thomas is missioning for purportedly had a role in Alan's decision to commit suicide. Actually, "purportedly" is not strong enough a word. Bible verses have felled many a man and woman who don't follow their strictures. At one point Liz flat out says, "the church killed him." But no matter. Thomas is young, idealistic, and narcissistically fixated on the notion that “there is a reason God led me to your (Charlie's) door” - a self-serving variation of the annoyingly ubiquitous but metaphysically calming notion that “everything happens for a reason.”
But does it? Does it really? Here we see the epic clash of two competing philosophical worldviews on how to extract meaning from a meaningless universe: Essentialism versus Existentialism. Some people put the cart before the horse. Their quest for meaning is a pull strategy versus a push strategy. Essentialism says that humans are born with an essential calling in life, and that every action they take throughout their lives pulls them closer in alignment with a "higher purpose" that was carefully selected for them by some supernatural agency, or the universe as a whole. Jesus take the wheel, in other words. But Charlie doesn’t buy into that notion, regardless of how hard Thomas tries to convert him.
No, Charlie has chosen to put the horse firmly in front of the cart. In the film, he pushes to develop a relationship with his estranged daughter Ellie (played by the certain-to-be-a-huge-Hollywood-star Sadie Sink). It's a metaphysical Hail Mary, a desperate attempt to create “a meaning” for his existence instead of aligning with one that was already chosen for him. A nihilist-in-training at barely 15, Ellie appears too angry at her father to give him the satisfaction of knowing he means something to her. But this is precisely what Charlie needs to die in peace. In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film, he asserts, “I need to know that I have done one thing right with my life!”
I have a 9-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. I have days. We all have these days. Days where the universe makes no sense to me, or I’m too cynical or exhausted to push forward and create new sources meaning in my life, or am too lazy to remember the wisdom of Viktor Frankl - who had it a hell of a lot worse than I ever will. But on these days - like Charlie - I find my ultimate meaning and purpose in the fact that I’ve created two lovely human beings who care about me, and will love themselves and others around them long after I’m gone. Sure, I am toiling on grandiose projects, and have fabulous plans for the future, but at the end of the day, my kids are, and always will be, my greatest achievement. This makes the climax of THE WHALE all the more satisfying. At least for me. And I think parents like me will totally understand.
My apologies if you thought that this analysis of THE WHALE would inform the national conversation about eating disorders. It’s an important conversation, to be sure, and I help support individuals who are struggling with these disorders every week in my SMART Recovery meetings. But THE WHALE will not tell you much about eating disorders. Or even addiction for that matter. It will only show you an example of a food addiction playing itself out in extreme fashion. Like other Aranofsky films that examine addiction to drugs (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM Chapter 4), or addiction to perfection (BLACK SWAN Chapter 13), THE WHALE is less about the substance or behavior of choice, and more about the deeper philosophical questions and metaphorical archetypes being examined as his characters search for meaning in an absurd universe. A universe that provides zero guidance as to why we’re even here to ask that question to begin with.
But whatever. That question is absurd anyway, right? So just make some popcorn, with a shit-ton of butter, enjoy THE WHALE, and essentially show the universe who's boss today.