The recent craze of survivalist stories, movies with a small cast that focus on one character battling the dangers of the wilderness, is not going to stop anytime soon. Half a year after Gravity and All is Lost captivated moviegoers, telling tales of people grappling with tense life-or-death situations, we get the low-key but high-suspense Whitewash, a bare and thinly plotted thriller from Canada set in the icy Quebec wilderness.
Thomas Haden Church plays Bruce Landry, a snow plow driver who, while driving under the influence of alcohol and his own misery, hits a man with his vehicle. Whether or not this is an accident due to poor visibility from a dense fog of snow or a deliberate murder, given his lack of panic upon the collision, is unclear. Bruce buries the body in a pit of snow on the side of the road and then drives his plow recklessly into the middle of the woods.
It turns out that Bruce has hit a man he befriended named Paul (Marc Labrèche). Bruce met Paul when the latter tried to kill himself through inhaling gas in his car. It turns out that Paul’s wife left him and he owes $15,000 in gambling debts, so he lacks drive and purpose. Bruce is in a similarly meagre position. His wife died from cancer and he is also broke. However, now stuck in a steep pit of snow, miles away from civilization, Bruce is trying to come to grips with the recent events of his life. He is stuck in the middle of nowhere: there is no fuel and the wheels are locked. With a lot of time to ponder this dark chapter in his life, Bruce sits in his wrecked dozer in frigid temperatures and revisits his icy friendship with Paul, told through flashback.
Whitewash is a film that is more economical than entertaining, both helped and hurt by its bare bones limitations. Actor Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais directs from a script he co-wrote and succeeds in trapping the viewer into Bruce’s cramped state, while also visualizing the vast expanse of forest around the protagonist. When Bruce drives the plow into the forest, the light blaring from the roof and the headlights cuts through and creates a road of light. Hoss-Desmarais films this vehicle from a distance, showing how thin the path of light is within the thick, dark forest. Meanwhile, an uneasy score from Serge Nakauchi Pelletier generates suspense without infringing on the small-scale production by pounding in the paranoia.
As the exiled man pondering his existence, Church brings warmth and humanity to the icy drama. At first, without much of a road map to this character – the film starts off with Bruce crashing into Paul, without any knowledge of their prior relationship – Church seems hostile and aggressive. The script (from Hoss-Desmarais and Marc Tulin) parses, slowly, some context of that friendship to decode the mystery surrounding Bruce’s emptiness. With creased skin and a pained face, Church evokes the character’s conflicted dilemma without needing to resort to mugging his anger or sadness in overly expressive ways. He stays agonized and determined throughout, bringing conviction to the role and keeping Whitewash riveting, even as it meanders
The key to getting Bruce under our skin is Church, although he only goes as far as the screenplay allows him. Bruce performs various audible confessions to himself – some are amusing fantasies of a future dialogue with police that may interrogate him, while others seem directly aimed at a viewer as he explains his state of mind out loud, which is too easy of a screenwriting conceit.
Slowly, the environment comes to mirror Bruce’s predicament, warming up as his will to live becomes more resolute, while threatening to hurt or injure the character as negative forces approach. Bruce even digs up a cave of snow, serving as a place for him to mutter some more to himself and hide from the rest of humanity. In a way, the character is hibernating from a world where he has gone missing and is likely the main suspect in Paul’s disappearance. What favor would he do going back out into civilization? “You know what really gets to me? That he was smiling,” he repeats throughout. “The bastard had nothing to smile about.” At first, Bruce seems to be describing Paul’s corpse when he picked the body up, but it could be reflecting his inner sadness and turmoil, as well.
While Church finds notes of grace and humanity within Whitewash (which would have been more taut as a short story), there are very few major plot turns here. For a film that takes place entirely during a cold winter, the interior drama is not as chilling as it should be.
Whitewash is a slight but suspenseful thriller from Canada that is ultimately worth watching due to Thomas Haden Church's gripping performance.