To say The Whale is a difficult watch is the understatement of the century. The movie—which is now available to purchase on digital platforms like Amazon Prime Video—is a relentlessly uncomfortable and cruel two hours documenting the (spoiler alert!) final week of a 600-pound man, who has isolated himself from the world, and is now facing imminent death due to health issues caused by his weight.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky—the same man who brought you uncomfortable, divisive movies like Black Swan and mother!The Whale is based on a 2012 play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter. Hunter, who also adapted the screenplay for film, based the story on his own experience with obesity in college. “I know many people who are big, happy, and healthy, but I wasn’t,” Hunter said in an interview for the films’ press notes. “I had a lot of unprocessed emotions from attending a fundamentalist Christian school where my sexuality came to bear in an ugly way, and that emerged in an unhealthy relationship with food. When I started writing The Whale, I think it all just came pouring out of me.”

Thus, The Whale features many hard-to-watch sequences of binge-eating junk food, beads of sweat rolling down Brendan Fraser’s heavily make-upped face, and Fraser struggling to move around in a squishy, rolling fat suit. If you manage to make it to the end of the film, you’ll be met with a moving but ambiguous conclusion. Don’t worry, Decider is here to help. Read on for an analysis of The Whale plot summary and ending explained, including what happens at the end of The Whale, and whether Charlie dies. Major spoilers ahead.

The Whale plot summary:

We meet Charlie (Brendan Fraser) as he is giving a virtual lecture for an online college English course. He keeps his camera off, telling his students that his webcam is broken. In reality, he is ashamed of his appearance as an obese, 600-pound man. Charlie can’t walk on his own and never leaves his house. Through the course of the film, he is visited by several recurring characters. There is Liz (Hong Chau), Charlie’s nurse friend who cares for him. Liz informs Charlie that his blood pressure is at a dangerous level, and that he needs to go to the hospital, or he will very likely die of congestive heart failure by the end of the week. Charlie refuses to go, citing the fact that he has no money and can’t afford the hospital bills. He instead decides to spend his last week of life attempted to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

Another visitor of Charlie’s is Thomas, a door-to-door missionary from an evangelical church called New Life. Thomas walks in on Charlie while he is hyperventilating and at risk of having a heart attack. Charlie thrusts an essay about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into Thomas’s hands and instructs him to read it. After Charlie calms down, Thomas asks why Charlie asked him to read it. “I thought I was going to die, and I wanted to hear it one last time,” Charlie says. “It’s a really good essay.”

Charlie is also visited by his teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he hasn’t seen since she was 8 years old. Charlie, a gay man, left Ellie and her mom when Ellie was 8 because he fell in love with one of his (adult) students. Charlie tells Ellie he wanted to be part of her life, but that her mother forbade him from seeing her. Ellie is an exceptionally angry teenager and is exceedingly cruel to her father. When Charlie learns that Ellie is in danger of flunking out of high school, he offers to help her with her upcoming essay. He also offers to pay her to spend time with him—all the money he has, which is over $100,000.

Thomas the missionary returns to Charlie’s home because he believes he was sent by God at the exact right moment to help Charlie. Liz is upset by Thomas’s presence and tells him to leave Charlie alone. We learn that Liz’s brother, Alan, was Charlie’s romantic partner, as well as a member of the New Life church. Liz blames New Life for her brother’s extreme unhappiness—because he was told his sexuality went against the will of God—which eventually led to Alan jumping off a bridge and killing himself. Charlie, in his grief, began binge-eating in response.

Charlie’s health is rapidly declining. Liz brings Charlie a wheelchair to help him move around his house. Ellie once again visits Charlie and demands that he write her essay assignment. Charlie agrees. Despite how cruel Ellie is to Charlie, he insists she is an amazing person. Ellie slips Charlie sleeping pills, and while he is unconscious, Thomas the missionary once again comes to visit, and Ellie threatens to kill her father if Thomas doesn’t smoke pot with her. She snaps an incriminating photo of Thomas, and then confronts him: She knows he’s not from New Life, because she knows that New Life no longer has door-to-door missionaries.

Thomas confesses that while he used to be a missionary—after his parents sent him away to the church when they discovered him smoking pot–he grew frustrated with the church’s lack of social outreach and felt he wasn’t truly helping people. After a blow-out argument with the pastor, Thomas stole all of the church’s petty cash and left. He confesses to Ellie that he is almost out of money, but is too afraid to go home. Ellie secretly records his confession.

Liz and Ellie’s mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), show up and discover that Ellie has drugged her father. After Liz coaxes Charlie back to consciousness, she finds out that Charlie, despite his protests about hospital bills, does, in fact, have money. He’s just been saving all of it to give to Ellie. Liz is furious that Charlie has refused to buy the medical care and equipment he needs, and storms out. Ellie storms out too, telling her dad to “just fucking die already.” Charlie gives Ellie the essay she asked for before she leaves.

Charlie and Mary talk about their life and marriage. Charlie shares a memory of going to the beach with Ellie and Mary and swimming in the ocean. Mary tells Charlie one reason she kept Charlie away from Ellie is that she was afraid Ellie would hurt him. Mary says Ellie is “evil,” and shows Charlie a cruel picture of himself that Ellie posted on social media, mocking him. Charlie continues to insist that Ellie is amazing and that she’s a great writer. Mary leaves in tears, and Charlie, also in tears, tells her that he has to believe he’s done one good thing in his life, aka Ellie.

After Mary leaves, Charlie goes on a binge eating session that ends in him vomiting. He rashly posts a prompt on his students’ online message board, challenging them to write something honest. Thomas visits one last time and shows Charlie a Bible passage highlighted in Alan’s old Bible. Thomas believes Alan died because he turned his back on God and gave into “the flesh,” aka homosexuality. Charlie, for once, stands up for himself, and more or less tells Thomas to piss off. Thomas informs Charlie that Ellie sent his recorded confession to his church and parents, and that both parties forgave him, meaning he can finally go home.

In his final webinar class, Charlie reveals he has been fired. He reads some of his students’ responses to his prompt to be honest. Moved by their honesty, he vows to be honest in return and turns on his web camera to show them his entire body. The students react in shock and disgust.

The Whale ending explained:

On the last day of his life, Liz returns to Charlie to take care of him. Even though she is angry, she loves him. Charlie tells Liz that he believe Ellie ratted Thomas out because she wanted to help him, because, “people are amazing.” Ellie storms into the house, angry with Charlie because she failed her essay assignment. When she sees the shape Charlie is in, she uncertainly asks Liz what’s wrong. “He’s dying,” Liz replies. Ellie says to call an ambulance, but Charlie replies, “No.” Ellie asks to speak to Charlie alone, and although Liz doesn’t want to leave Charlie, she agrees. Liz seems to realize that she is saying goodbye to Charlie, and tells him she’ll wait downstairs.

Ellie demands to know why Charlie failed her assignment and accuses him of purposefully screwing her over. Charlie, who is beginning to hyperventilate, tells Ellie that he didn’t write the essay—she did. It’s an essay on Moby Dick that Ellie wrote in 8th grade. Ellie’s mom sent the essay to Charlie, and Charlie believes it’s the best essay he’s ever read. Charlie sobs that he is sorry for leaving Ellie. As he begins to actively have a heart attack, Ellie turns to leave. Charlie begs her to read her essay to him, and she relents. As Ellie reads about the whale in Moby Dick, Charlie stands to his full height, entirely on his own. (Get it? He’s the whale!)

With a massive effort, Charlie walks toward Ellie. When Ellie reads Charlie’s favorite line in the essay—”And I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters, that were just descriptions of whales, because I knew the author was trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while,”—Charlie imagines stepping into the ocean, all those years ago when he wasn’t so obese.

Ellie steps toward Charlie. She begins to read the next line of the essay, “This book made me think about my own life, and then it made me glad for my–” but she cuts off. Charlie and Ellie smile at each other. Then with a gasp, Charlie floats off the floor and into a bright white light. With that, the movie ends.

Photo: Everett Collection

Does Charlie die in The Whale?

Yes. While one could argue that The Whale ending is up for interpretation, my interpretation is that Charlie’s feet leaving the ground is a clear metaphor for Charlie’s body leaving this earth, aka, that he has died of heart failure. The movie has made it clear throughout that Charlie only has about a week to live, and is careful to denote each day of the week. Liz said at the beginning of the final scene that Charlie is dying.

This is slightly different from how the stage version of The Whale ends, with a hard cut to black. But in an interview with editor Andrew Weisblum for the film’s press notes, it seems clear that the filmmakers intended this scene to indicate “the end” of Charlie’s life, and that it mirror the first scene that Charlie has with Ellie. “It was important to set that up structurally, these two moments that reflect each other—where in one Charlie fails and in the other, he succeeds. The cutting patterns and shot choices of the two scenes are very similar. But the power of that final scene is that we know Charlie is facing the end.”

What was the end of Ellie’s essay in The Whale?

But what about that final line of Ellie’s essay, that we never got to hear? What is she glad for? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. The full essay is never read in the movie and always cuts off before that final line.

While we never get to hear what it was that Ellie was glad for in her own life, it’s clear that this is the most impactful part of the essay for Charlie. Did she write that she was glad family, perhaps? Or is she glad her dad left her when he did, to spare her his sad story? Or for the fact that she has books to read, to escape her own sad story, just for a little while?

It’s up to you to fill in the blank. Because the movie is so bleak, I choose to interpret it as Ellie feeling grateful for both her mother and her father, who love her. I just need Charlie to know that Ellie was grateful for his love. He needed to know he did one good thing with his life, he said. Maybe he’s clinging to that essay because the final line, written by Ellie, confirms that he did.