Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ nuanced character study may run on many different cylinders, but all are tuned to the same end; a modern day, “accidental” Crime and Punishment where the protagonist struggles heavily in the wake of a rash action and its indelible consequences, which begin to consume him. There’s really not much in terms of plot, but what there is unfurls in compelling, nonlinear strokes that a more straight-forward approach might otherwise render pedantic or tedious. Hoss-Desmarais also has Thomas Haden Church in his deck of cards, and since much is asked of the film’s lead, having a capable actor imbued with on-tap quirk and soul, layers the effort immeasurably.
Whitewash begins with a bang, literally as Bruce (Church), driving a Sno-Cat snowplow down a snow-encrusted street in a Quebec burg during near-whiteout conditions, mows down a lone shadowy figure. Whether the accident is truly accidental or not is unclear and remains so in the aftermath and “what to do next” stage. Bruce is despondent initially but shifts into calculating cover-up mode as he wraps up the body, puts it in the Sno-Cat and drives the vehicle deep into the woods.
What happens next brings the walls of the event and his guilt tightly around Bruce as he eschews the comforts of his nearby abode and starts living in the Sno-Cat, drinking heavily and launching into rambling discourses with the corpse. It’s through such conversations—and flashbacks—that we get at the demons that plague Bruce (he’s a widower and an alcoholic who can no longer perform as a snowplow operator because of drunk-driving incidents) and the fact that Bruce knew the man that he crushed. Ironically (and it’s a devilish twist that I won’t reveal the details of), Bruce had saved Paul (Marc Labrèche) once before, and as a result, the two tortured paths become unhealthily intertwined.
Paul bears an immeasurable amount of baggage, too—perhaps more so than Bruce. His wife has high expectations of him, and then there’s the albatross-sized gambling debt he’s lugging around that he begs Bruce to bail him out on. Normally, Paul would be just a two-dimensional dick, but Labrèche and Hoss-Desmarais breathe deep complexity into the conflicted persona. Labrèche looks something like Malcolm McDowell; there’s something both boyish and all-knowing in his countenance. At once, he’s avuncular and warm, but you can’t trust him and it’s the mercurial uneasiness the character projects and his shady motivations that hold the flashback action sharp on edge with ever rising stakes and circumstance.
Back in the present thread, Bruce abides his survivalist existence, which like Dostoyevsky’s tormented soul, becomes a de nfacto, self-imposed penance. The delusion-filled, solitary nature of the guilt-riddled odyssey casts shades of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia by way of Man in the Wilderness and at times, drifts over into Fargo-dark wackiness as Bruce starts to hide out in other people’s homes and barns. (When confronted for such trespasses, he spins a yarn that he a member of a coalition on a Christian mission.)
Much of Whitewash’s success comes through Church’s full immersion into Bruce as he sinks into despair and many a frigid hour grappling with his conscience. Compared to Church’s gonzo, off-the-wall character in Sideways, Bruce is an unlikely, but piquant offset that illustrates the actor’s broad range, while leveraging a bit of that “mischievous eye” that made Sideways so infectious and unpredictable.
Beyond the sublime performances and intrigue-building narrative, the other brilliant stoke to the Whitewash is its use of the Quebec cold and change of seasons. I can’t quickly recall a film where the passing of time and transition of climate has ever been so subtly pivotal in terms of the plot. Its use here is so masterful that it had me wondering if, in the case of Hoss-Desmarais, a possessor of a pretty slender CV, it wasn’t just dumb luck. It’s a moot question as the film stands on its own, an impressive accomplishment propelled by intricacies that are aesthetically chilling as they unfold.
Director: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
Writer: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, Marc Tulin
Starring: Thomas Haden Church, Marc Labrèche
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge, MA. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow him on Twitter.