'In the Heart of the Sea' Tells of Hunting Whales and Losing Souls

The whale is an embodiment of a nature that's furious at those humans who mean to exploit and squander its riches.

In the Heart of the Sea

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Fairley
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-12-26 (General release)

"There's an agony about him. His soul is in torment and in need of confession." So observes one of the few women to speak in Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea. Her name is Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley), and yes, she's fretting about Mr. Nickerson (Brendon Glesson), who -- unlike his wife -- also has a first name, Tom. At his wife's urging (not only has she been supporting them financially for years, but she's also weary of watching him "drink himself to death"), Tom will go on to unburden his soul and make his confession to his visitor, a younger, eager novelist and former whaler named Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw).

"I want you to tell me what happened to the Essex," Melville says, leaning across a wooden table in the flickering candlelight. Tom's not enthusiastic, but so he goes, relating the saga that reportedly inspired Moby Dick. That saga involves a gigantic sperm whale who, in 1820, is bent on revenge against the men who hunt whales with harpoons in order to service an exceptionally profitable industry.

The whale doesn't come with much characterization in this IMAX-ed spectacular, gliding through dark waters, at once distant and too close, breaching over the ocean's surface magnificently -- huge, building-sized body rising and then curving, holding for just a moment before it slams and splashes, the men puny in their boats, their awe dramatized by a series of close-ups on their worn, sunburned faces.

Daunting and one-dimensional, the whale is helpfully associated with "the devil" by a Mexican captain who's missing body parts and issuing grave warnings.

Throughout, the creature is more symbolic than motivated, an embodiment of a nature that's furious at those humans who mean to exploit and squander the riches that only seem to be endlessly available.

The 21 men on the Essex -- including Tom as a teenager, played by Tom Holland -- mean to return to Nantucket from their expedition with a hold full of whale oil, convinced that their manly work, adrenaline rushes, boosted reputations, and workers' wages will mostly make up for their hard year or two away from home. The film does well to indicate that this grand delusion, as it grounds that most primary of American mythologies, the rugged individual with access to a dream.

The film challenges but also reinforces this delusion. First, it makes clear that the majority of the crew won't come close to realizing their dreams, and two, it offers a dreamy hero who might. First mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is beautiful in every way -- least until he spends months adrift on a lifeboat -- robust, blue-eyed, married to a great girl (Charlotte Riley) who supports him as she sadly bids him farewell, knowing that while he earnestly promises to return, he'll also miss the birth of their first child (the movie's only other woman with a speaking part, she's granted a first name, Peggy).

Owen's a dashing sort, expert at his job and thrilling to his crew, and so a problem for the captain, who is none of those things, but only rich. Owen learns that even though the ship's owners (gray old men who might as well be sitting in the Muppets' balcony) are reneging on a promise to make him a captain in order to accommodate Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), whose father is financing the voyage. This familiar arrangement makes the class divisions schematic, and extends them to moral and political oppositions.

If Pollard isn't so majestic or ghastly as Ahab, still, in the Heart of the Sea makes much of his opposition to Owen Chase. Repeatedly, the captain makes obviously ridiculous decisions, sending the ship into danger (a storm, a sea "at the edge") or dress down Owen in front of the crew. None of these moves helps to make Pollard look or feel "superior", a word his dad uses. Instead, his men look annoyed, Owen looks smart, and you know where this story is going.

All this makes you miss Queequeg and appreciate Melville who, according to this film based on Nathaniel Philbrick's nonfiction book, left out certain horrific details about the disaster while elaborating on others. “How does one come to know the unknowable?” Melville asks in voiceover. His novel's answer was that you don't.

In the Heart of the Sea, though less poetic and profound, does its best to make visible the mechanics of human tragedy and cruelty, the rationalizing of revenge and the brutality of commerce. When the colossal whale comes close to the whalers, so vast that its body becomes the screen, you see, with the men, the network of new injuries and old scars on its hide, a map of pain and resilience.

A reverse shot of Owen's face suggests that he takes notice of this body, and might even think about what it means. He lowers his harpoon, deciding against seeking his own revenge, while the captain yells and flails about behind him, exhorting him to finish off the monster that destroyed what was supposed to be a lucrative and legacy-sealing venture.

As the movie offers this lesson it's hard not to think of how the ideas of size and scope affect so many enterprises, and then apply the lesson to this big movie. Full of effects and acrobatic camerawork and impressive performances, the story's abiding interest in making money is a given. But its preemptive critique of that interest and the crass expectations and processes buoying it is superficial at best. As Owen walks off into Tom's misty memory, forever right and righteous, his myth remains intact.


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