Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) is a small-town ice plow driver in rural Quebec who has a bit too much to drink one night, heads out for a plow and accidentally hits and kills a man in the middle of the road. Panicked, and still more than a little drunk, he hides the body off the side of a road and heads into the woods in an effort to elude the police and the consequences they bring with them. He awakes the next morning in a plow almost out of gas and nearly buried in snow. Staying out of jail soon takes second place on his list of priorities right behind staying alive.
As Bruce scrounges empty cabins for food and checks local papers for news on the dead man we see flashbacks to the days leading up to the accident. Details about his personal life and state of mind are revealed, and a portrait of a sad, defeated man comes into focus. And then we learn that the dead man was no stranger and in fact was a recent acquaintance of Bruce’s.
Whitewash is a slowburn thriller laced with blackly comic moments and a blanket of never-ending snow. Even as the tone shifts slightly between the serious and the absurd, the one constant is the cold that pervades the film and everything in it.
Director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais (and co-writer Marc Tulin) are telling a simple tale here, one of guilt, sorrow and loneliness, and the film uses geography to enhance and solidify those themes. It’s an all-encompassing winter, normal for most of the area’s residents but a fresh hell for Bruce. Pockets of warmth that he and the film find are never more than temporary respites from the cold and the sound of ice crunching beneath feet and wheels. His plow’s heater dies, he’s discovered hiding in a garage, diner staff grow suspicious before he’s had time to eat his warm meal — his post-accident world is a series of short-lived way stations, but glimpses of his life before the fateful impact aren’t that much cheerier.
The story that slowly unfurls offers explanations and revelations, but they feel somewhat less powerful than the film itself seems to believe they are. Keeping in sync with the film’s overall low-key simplicity, the narrative turns are pedestrian in nature and somewhat easily foreseen as earlier bits fall into place. It ruins nothing on the dramatic front to be a step or two ahead of the flashbacks as the meat of the film rests in Bruce’s current predicament and on Church’s face.
He’s long been an actor capable of meshing the downtrodden with the amusing, and he does so again here in the fairly unfamiliar role of leading man. The character walks a fine line between earning our sympathy and or scorn as we move from learning his situation to watching his behavior, but Church keeps him consistently worth our attention and affection. We can’t help but support him even as we question his actions, and that’s largely due to Church’s ability to keep this poor shell of a man’s humanity front and center.
Whitewash survives more on its lead actor and tone than it does on its story, but they all work together to create a fun and simple tale of crime gone wrong. Bruce is a victim of his own poor judgement as exacerbated by his state of mind, and Church makes him a remarkably compelling sad sack and engaging and warm company for ninety minutes spent out in the cold.
The Upside: Compelling lead performance by Thomas Haden Church; attractively shot; humorous
The Downside: Story lacks momentum or a powerful third act
On the Side: Director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais also has a small role in the film.
Whitewash is currently available on various VOD platforms.