The Whale
Still from "The Whale" / Courtesy of A24

Faith and Films: Religious Trauma in ‘The Whale’


Faith and Films: Religious Trauma in ‘The Whale’

Commentary by Matthew Kincanon

In the Academy Award-winning film “The Whale,” viewers watch a week of a morbidly obese man’s life as he receives grave news about his declining health and wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

The movie has gained some controversy over its depiction of Charlie (masterfully performed by Brendan Fraser) and that it perpetuates the idea that fat people only know suffering and binge-eating.

However, these critiques miss the point of what this movie conveys through Charlie’s weight, suffering, depression and binge-eating. The movie is about the long-term consequences of religious trauma.

Before reading further, this analysis includes some spoilers and discusses several plot points and twists in the movie.

In the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Thomas, a missionary, who stumbles upon Charlie having chest pain and appears he’s dying. After helping Charlie, Thomas wants to tell him about Jesus and save his soul in preparation for the Second Coming. This character consistently shows up randomly throughout the movie, and we learn more about him and why he’s so persistent in his quest to “save” Charlie.

In the scenes with Thomas, a church called New Life, which is said to preach about the end of times, is constantly brought up and discussed and each character’s feelings about the church are displayed. These scenes reveal the trauma the church, or religion, in general, has caused them.

Before developing an eating disorder after his boyfriend, Alan, commits suicide, Charlie is shown to have been a devout member of the church, read all of their pamphlets and the entire Bible. However, based on the discussions he has with Thomas, he’s not interested in “being saved” and provides a grim interpretation of what the Bible is about.

So what made Charlie go from being a devout Christian to distancing himself from religion? This is revealed through other characters.

Liz (played by Hong Chau) grew up with New Life and holds a lot of resentment toward it because of how her father led it and treated her brother. Because of this, she’s shown to be very hostile to Thomas.

Her brother did missionary work and his dad had arranged for him to be married to a girl from the church, but he fell in love with someone else and started a new life. However, his dad not only kicked him out of the church, but out of the family as well.

It is revealed that Alan is Liz’s brother, and the pain of being shunned by his family and community affected him mentally and physically. He stopped eating and each character describes how he deteriorated, despite their best efforts to help him. Eventually, Alan jumped off a bridge. This event emotionally scars both Charlie and Liz.

The trauma of Alan’s suicide caused Charlie to develop an eating disorder, resulting in his obesity and congestive heart failure. He used food to cope with the death of his boyfriend, and distanced himself from religion because he saw it as the root cause for Alan’s death.

As for Liz, the trauma caused her to become very hostile toward missionaries and churchgoers, and to be especially protective of Charlie, because of the toxic and abusive practices that led to her brother’s death.

Religious trauma is something we’ve seen time and time again among LGBTQ communities and in films such as “Boy Erased.” This movie shows the long-term effects of what happens when congregations cut off gay people from their friends and family.

Charlie’s eating disorder and Alan’s suicide and declining health (loss of appetite) aren’t the only signs of religious trauma shown in the film. Anxiety, depression, pervasive feelings of shame and guilt, loss of community and a sense of isolation are symptoms of religious trauma (according to The Refuge and therapist.com) that are present throughout the movie.

Despite Charlie and Liz distancing themselves from religion, the trauma keeps returning in the form of Thomas. It becomes most apparent in a scene where he’s reading Charlie a highlighted verse from Alan’s Bible:

“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation, but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Romans 8:12-13

In his crusade to convert Charlie and have him repent of his sexuality to “save” his soul, he says Charlie is the reason why Alan died and why God turned his back on him. The pain Thomas causes Charlie in this scene results in the missionary being chastised by the man, and ends with Thomas calling him disgusting; not because he’s obese, but because he’s gay.

Even though Thomas doesn’t believe Charlie can find salvation, the ending of the movie implies otherwise.

In the final moments of the film, as a dying Charlie stands in front of his daughter as she reads an essay she wrote in 8th grade about “Moby Dick,” Charlie can be seen beginning to float into the air and is suddenly taken by a bright light.

Charlie dies in this scene and ascends into Heaven after making amends with his daughter and no longer feeling ashamed. He found salvation and saved his soul through redeeming himself with his daughter, not by the words of a missionary or abusive clergy.

Overall, the movie serves as a heartbreaking depiction of what religious trauma and spiritual abuse do to not only the people afflicted by them, but also what it does to their loved ones. 

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