In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Whale, we will explain the film’s ending.
- Charlie – Brendan Fraser
- Ellie – Sadie Sink
- Mary – Samantha Morton
- Liz – Hong Chau
- Thomas – Ty Simpkins
- Written by – Samuel D. Hunter
- Based on the play – The Whale
- Directed by – Darren Aronofsky
The end of The Whale explained
Thomas comes over and tells Charlie that he, Thomas, is going home thanks to Ellie. The conversation takes a turn when Thomas tries to “save” Charlie. Charlie pushes back on the idea of God and an afterlife and explicitly states his shame, guilt, and frustration with himself over his weight.
The next day, he tells his online class that he’s been replaced. This is the consequence of posting an assignment to be honest where he used cuss words. During this “last lecture”, Charlie makes a big point about honesty and being yourself. This culminates with him turning on his facecam for the first time, revealing to the class what he looks like. Some are shocked. Some are awed. Some are concerned. Embarrassed. Stunned. “These assignments don’t matter. This course doesn’t matter. College doesn’t matter. These amazing, honest things that you wrote, they matter.” As a sign off, he throws his laptop across the room. It breaks.
Liz shows up with food. Charlie doesn’t look good. He’s audibly wheezing. These two now have their final talk. Liz is upset at the revelation that Charlie has over $100,000 in the bank he’s refused to use to get himself medical help. She compares what happened with Alan dying from not eating to Charlie dying from overeating. “I can’t do this anymore.” Charlie says he told Alan he didn’t need anyone else, not God, not anyone else. Liz says, “I don’t think I believe anyone can save anyone.” Which leads to Charlie talking about Ellie and Thomas. “Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring? People are amazing.”
Ellie bursts into the house and confronts Charlie about the essay he gave her. It received an F. When she finally reads it, she realizes what it is. It’s an essay she wrote in eighth grade English class. It’s the whale essay Charlie has obsessed over since the opening of the movie. Charlie apologizes to Ellie. He breaks down Ellie’s own self loathing. “This essay is you.” He tells her she’s perfect, that she’ll be happy, that she cares about people. His condition quickly deteriorates. Charlie begs her to read the essay. Ellie’s about to go but opens the door and bathes herself and the room in light. She says, “Daddy, please.” Then turns and begins to read the essay.
Charlie calms. Suddenly motivated, he rolls, he struggles, he stands. He steps. He steps. Closer and closer to Ellie. He flashes to a day of being back at the beach. His feet in the water. Ellie and Charlie share a moment. Then Charlie’s feet lift off the ground, he gasps, and ascends. We get a final wide shot of him on the beach, standing in the surf, young Ellie behind him. It’s a bright, lovely, picturesque day.
There’s a good amount going on here, narratively and thematically.
First and foremost, the obvious implication is that Charlie dies. But how should we take his feet lifting off the ground? The flash of light? The final shot? The Whale had been a very grounded, realistic movie. But that ending brings in aspects of the surreal.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a subjective visual. At that moment Charlie has a sense of peace. He reconnected with Ellie in a major way, breaking through the angry wall she had kept up for so much of the movie. To Charlie, his death isn’t this bleak, horrendous thing. It’s transcendent. The visual supports his sense of the weight lifted from his shoulders, and the grace and peace he feels. It’s similar to the end of Iñárritu’s film Birdman or scenes in Tár. In both those films the filmmaker allows the main character’s subjectivity to influence the film’s form. Aronofsky isn’t a stranger to this tactic, employing similar techniques in The Fountain and Black Swan. The benefit of the subjective visual is that you can do dynamic things with it. The con is how subjective moments can create confusion around how literally something should be viewed.
On the flip side of the subjective visual is the literal visual. In Birdman, we’re not supposed to believe the main character has telekinetic powers and can fly. It’s surreal subjectivity. But in Justice League, yeah, those things are literal. The Fountain, subjective. Inception, literal. Fight Club, subjective. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, literal. Mulholland Drive, incredibly subjective. Hereditary, literal.
The literal visual means that what we see has to be taken at face value. It’s not metaphoric. Like all the transcendent, crazy stuff we see in The Fountain is just a way to demonstrate the grieving process. It’s not literally what Hugh Jackman’s character does. But representative of his journey. In Inception, everything that happens is what happened. The dream-sharing isn’t some euphemism. The memory erasure in Eternal Sunshine is not merely a representation of getting over an ex. It’s a “real” procedure the character’s going through.
So in The Whale, if we read the ending as literal, then we have to try to explain how Charlie leaves his feet. What the flash of light means. And what that last image on the beach is. The clear, primary answer is that it’s a confirmation of God. That at the moment of his death, Charlie has this divine moment, a kind of personal rapture, as his soul leaves his body. Faith is one of The Whale’s major themes. Thomas embodies that theme. His belief and quest to save Charlie creates a means by which the narrative can explore Charlie’s relationship with religion. It’s not a coincidence that the arc between those characters ends with Charlie decrying God, hoping there isn’t an afterlife. That conversation happens when it happens for a reason.
The nuance here would be that Thomas thinks Charlie must atone for his sexuality. Something Charlie rightfully rejects. If Thomas was right, Charlie shouldn’t have such a divine conclusion. Instead of a light turning on, you’d expect a descent into darkness. It seems the atonement Charlie needed to make was with Ellie. Having done that, he’s redeemed.
It probably doesn’t matter whether the end is surreal or literal. Either way, the point is the same: guilt, fear, and shame can lead us down a dark path where we lie to others and ourselves. If you walk that path, you’re damned. Through honesty, we find redemption. We improve our relationships. We liberate the mind, body, and soul. And it’s never too late to give yourself and those you love that closure. Thomas had the right idea in that it wasn’t too late for Charlie to be saved. But Thomas was wrong in what that meant. And how to apply it. As Liz says, “I don’t think I believe anyone can save anyone.” The Whale makes the point that others can’t know what we need. What will save us. Especially not a random niche religious off-shoot. Only you know what you need to do. If you’re honest with yourself, the answer is clear. If you’re not honest, then it won’t be easy.
Ellie and her essay
We never hear the end of Ellie’s essay. It always cuts off at the same point: This book made me think about my own life, and then it made me feel glad for my…
While objectively we don’t know what Ellie says next, the visuals seem to imply the last word is “dad”. Just in the way that Charlie walks over to her. How she walks up to him. That when she reaches that point we see a shot of Charlie and he smiles. It cuts back to Ellie and she looks at him and smiles. It would also make sense why Charlie cherished that essay so much. Because it’s the one physical reminder he has that his daughter loved/loves him. She was glad for him.
Whether she says “Dad” or not at the end of the essay, the important thing is that it ends with Ellie being glad. That embodies her narrative arc. She starts off so angry. She’s mean to everyone. Her own mom calls her evil. The implication is that she’s so upset about Charlie leaving that she’s been taking it out on everyone else. There’s a lot of fear of abandonment and self-loathing. Charlie slowly breaks down that wall. He keeps telling Ellie she’s amazing. She’s beautiful. Smart. Perfect. Even at the end. He’s adamant about the good in her. That she can be happy. He even says that she is that essay. The essay is ruminative, serious, slightly sad. But it builds to a point of finding joy. And the hope is that Ellie herself will now be able to do the same.
Near the end of The Whale, Charlie and his ex-wife, Mary, get to reconnect. It’s not always pretty but it is cathartic. Eventually, they end up sitting next to each other. Mary lays her head on Charlie. They share a moment. Then Charlie begins to reflect.
When Ellie was little, when we took that trip to the Oregon Coast together, Ellie played in the sand and we laid out on the beach. I went swimming in the ocean. That was the last time I ever went swimming actually. I kept cutting my legs on the rocks. The water was so cold. And you were so mad that my legs bled and stained the seats in the minivan and you said for days after that I smelled like seawater. You remember that?
It’s not a profound moment. Nor a perfect moment. But it is a time Charlie remembers fondly. Through that subjective lens, it would represent simply a time of peace and potential. It’s probably one of many happy memories Charlie would die with. through the literal lens, it would imply something more heavenly, something afterlife-y.
Zooming out from the narrative reasons, two things come to mind. First, most of The Whale is very interior. Aside from the opening shot, the entire movie takes place in Charlie’s house or on his front porch. There’s a claustrophobia to the mise-en-scene. That also influences the color palette. The Whale is a very muted film, full of grays and shows. Typically, art finds the most power through escalation or contrast. So if a story starts in a sad place, the most powerful ending is either complete desolation or a true reversal of fortune. Often you build up the potential of the story going either way. The movie Atonement is a good example of this. It sets up the romance between Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy. But they’re separated by war. You spend the movie uncertain if they will or won’t end up together. The eventual conclusion is insanely emotional.
For The Whale, if it was going to have a negative ending, we’d expect it to double down on the claustrophobia and color palette. It would take those things to the extreme. But since it goes for a positive ending, it embraces aspects of contrast. Which is why when Ellie opens the door it’s such a surprising moment. For her, for Charlie, for the viewer. The light. The air. The sense of space. It’s lovely. The beach is about as opposite from Charlie’s apartment as it gets. It’s open. It’s bright. It’s full of energy. It’s also a time when Charlie had his family. All things that have been missing from his life.
So ending with the beach just has that visual energy that leaves the viewer with a better feeling than seeing Charlie on the floor of his house.
Of course, the movie’s also called The Whale and wants us to use that as a metaphor for Charlie. Not just in terms of his physical size. But as it relates to Ellie’s essay. Given the association with whales and the ocean, ending with Charlie on the beach feels like a way to try and visually connect person and cetacea.
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