Review: TFF 2013: Thomas Haden Church in Whitewash

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

WHITEWASH

The opening of Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ first feature, Whitewash, starring Thomas Haden Church, launches us directly into the story with no preamble. It is night, there is a blizzard, and a man staggers through dark snowy streets.

Meanwhile, Bruce (Church), behind the wheel of a small bulldozer, barrels along too fast and does not see the man in the street. In a horrifying moment, he accidentally plows the man down. Bruce, panicked, wraps the dead body in a blanket, and buries it in a snow drift, before driving off into the nearby forest. He crashes the bulldozer.

Bruce’s choices in the first five minutes of the film defy logic. Why wouldn’t he contact authorities? Why wouldn’t he take the body to a hospital? Did he know the man?

Whitewash will answer those questions, but on its own terms, and in its own time. Bruce huddles in the crashed bulldozer, as the wind roars and the snow piles up, and he waits. For what, we aren’t sure. And we are never really sure. Whitewash allows for uncertainty and ambivalence.

Elegantly woven-in flashbacks utilizing an entirely different tone, wry and bitterly comical, reveal that Bruce and the man he eventually runs over met a couple days earlier. Paul (Marc Labreche) is a strange character, eerily charming, but obviously unstable. Bruce, the lines in his face speaking a world of private pain, lets Paul stay with him for a couple of days. Bruce’s wife died recently, and he’s lost his bulldozer license for drinking on the job. It takes many flashbacks to discover what it was that happened between the two men that would cause Paul to take off into a blizzard on foot.

But the real thrust of the movie is not the Paul-Bruce story, and this is what is so fascinating about Whitewash (co-written by Hoss-Desmarais and Marc Tulin).

In high school English classes, we learned the three different types of conflict in fiction: Man against Man, Man against Nature, and Man against Self. (Some people object to these classifications, but they are a useful starting-off point.) The opening of Whitewash starts with “Man against Man,” with, perhaps, a bit of “Nature” thrown in, on account of the blizzard. But slowly, the conflict clearly morphs from Man against Nature to Man against Self.

Bruce does not go for help. Bruce does not try to fix his vehicle. He does not go to the police about the man he ran over. He stays with the bulldozer. He tries to keep warm. He makes treks for food (a rigorous journey through the trackless wilderness), and goes back to his “home”, now in the middle of the forest.

Whitewash was shot in northern Quebec, and Church is clearly really out there, in a real wilderness, with real snow drifts swallowing him up. He struggles with branches, he builds fires, he tries to carry bags of groceries and cans of gasoline through the deep drifts. Church often looks legitimately freezing. The setting is one of bleak grandeur and isolation. Far beyond the pull of civilization, Bruce is often filmed in long shots, so we see him starkly against the blinding white and snow-covered trees of the forbidding landscape. Cinematographer André Turpin captures both the beauty and the fear inherent in such a vast landscape.

As time passes, Bruce’s hold on reality comes apart. He talks to himself in a slightly deranged way, obviously grappling with pain and terror. He becomes convinced the bulldozer is a sentient being, watching him at all times. Although he could easily find his way back to a place with running water and electricity, it doesn’t seem to be that simple for Bruce. The longer he stays, the harder it is to go back.

Thomas Haden Church has never been better (and that’s saying a lot: he is always good). He is in every scene, and for the majority of Whitewash he is all by himself. There are a couple of moments where Church huddles inside the bull dozer, talking to himself, lost in a paranoid fantasy world. He is riveting, scary, vulnerable.

Hoss-Desmarais takes big risks with this strange material, holding off on using a score or any musical cues to let us know what we should be thinking or feeling. Bruce is on his own, and so are we. We aren’t sure why he can’t go back, we aren’t sure why he can no longer fit into that small sad house filled with memories of his wife, but we know he has his reasons.

Whitewash is a bold and risky film, dark and relentless in some respects, and almost slapstick in others (a sentient snow plow?). It is a meditative mood piece on loss, isolation, and one man’s battle against the elements, and against (or towards) himself.

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