Whitewash is an ambitious, if decidedly problematic debut Canadian feature that’s arriving in theatres at the perfect time. This cold weather chiller follows in the survivalist footsteps of films like All is Lost and Gravity where a single person will have their mental and physical toughness challenged beyond the breaking point, and just like those films it comes with a great leading performance from Thomas Hayden Church. Sadly, the only really interesting thing other than Church and some stunning cinematography is a fractured plot structure that tries almost too desperately to mask that there isn’t a heck of a lot going on.
Bruce (Church), a widowed, alcoholic, and unemployable plow operator in rural Northern Quebec loses it one night and goes for a joyride in the middle of a blizzard in the machine he’s been legally barred from operating. In one of his drunken stupors, he runs a man over, played by Marc Lebreche. The man he hits was someone recently made homeless and suicidal that was crashing on Bruce’s couch and was growing increasingly sketchy. In a panic, Bruce ditches the body in the woods among some accumulating snow drifts, and then proceeds to get so blackout drunk that he strands his plow in the middle of the Quebec wilderness with little hope of getting it unstuck on his own. His survival depends on his ability to walk back to town many, many miles to survive, but every time he returns to civilization, he retreats back to the woods to keep his vehicular manslaughter a secret.
Yesterday, Whitewash was announced as the recipient of the Claude Jutra Award for Best First Feature for this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to see why Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais was awarded the distinction for his direction. Individual scenes within the film are quite well done, filmed with a snowbound, Hitchcockian eye for human weakness and suspense. When Bruce is left to his own devices, Desmarais isn’t resorting to bombastic set pieces to show the man’s descent into madness or to underscore how his life is in peril. When Bruce has to make periodic returns for food and supplies before every aborted attempt to free his plow, Desmarais and Church do a great job of showing a man in the midst of a psychotic break from reality; a standoffish sense of self-preservation that’s doing him more harm than help.
Church’s understated performance here also goes quite a long way. In flashbacks designed to show the events of the days leading up to the death of his former houseguest, Bruce becomes a sympathetic drunkard. He’s a man that despite all of his faults and obstinacy was just trying to do a good deed for a fellow down-on-his-luck soul and is eventually made to pay for his kindness (albeit through a somewhat suspect and questionable plot device that works more on an emotional level than on a logical one). Also good and nominated at the Canadian Screen Awards for Best Supporting Actor is Lebreche as the depressed hustler desperate for survival in his own way.
As the film goes on, however, problems start arising because it becomes more and more illogical and increasingly repetitive in trying to come up with ways to keep Bruce stranded. It becomes more of a distancing movie where Church can’t do much more than act really cold and pained, and it comes with a distinct lack of subtext because after about an hour, Desmarais has run out of backstory that he can keep flashing back to. It’s these moments that are saved by the work of Church and cinematographer Andre Turpin (Incendies, Tom at the Farm) because Desmarias is in over his head. This final act dullness just as things should be wrapping up less conveniently and shrug-worthy than they end up being retroactively proves that the rest of the film didn’t have enough to say to sustain a feature length. It’s a shame because it’s two-thirds of a pretty great film that shoots itself in the foot by wearing out its welcome a bit too quickly.