Not many have fared well in frozen wilderness since Jack London, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t even do that well if his brand of naturalism says anything. I guess Bear Grylls knows what he’s doing, but no one wants to hear the opinion of a man who drinks his own urine and does commercials for Degree. The wilderness is an escape for a very good reason; it’s brutal and unforgiving and no one wants to be there. There’s also no one, nothing out there, but you and yourself. People always imagine the void as black, but I think it’s a pristine white.
Whitewash is the directorial debut of newcomer Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and makes a strong case for the darkly comic newcomer. The film revolves around Bruce (Thomas Hayden Church), an ex-snowplow driver and semi-functioning alcoholic who accidentally hits and kills a man named Paul (Marc Labreche) in the middle of a snowstorm. The ensuing 90 minutes follow Bruce, wrecked and stranded in the middle of a forest, while he wrestles with himself, his actions, and the punishing environment of rural Canada. The setting is bleak, the people depressing, and the circumstances grim; it is hilarious.
Hoss-Desmarais uses a bit of genius rewriting to beat man-against-wilderness trope. Similar in scope and cinematography to the teenage handwringer Into the Wild and the sad guy favorite Prince Avalanche (TMT Review), Whitewash fills the empty natural expanse with dry, sardonic wit and a character who involuntarily quits society; instead of ennui-ridden adult men who think they’re going to “find” themselves. Bruce is a simple, sad man more interested in finding a hot meal and a bottle of whiskey than answers and an epiphany about the way his life panned out. Imagine the fatalist Irish humor of Martin Mcdonagh and the off-color characters of the Coen brothers (Hoss-Desmarais has definitely seen Fargo) accidentally murdered someone and retreated into a frozen tundra.
Whitewash is told in present tense spliced with vignettes and instances from the past three days of Bruce’s life and how he came to be living in a busted snowplow eating bark. A large part of the film’s allure is the slow reveal of how these two awry sad sacks came to cross paths, and how one of them ended crushed under heavy machinery. There is absolutely nothing uplifting in this film. Hoss-Desmarais keeps up a constant barrage of sad to sadder to god-I-wish-I-was-dead, but his delivery and presentation produces more of a snort than a groan. The narrative moves slowly from time to time, and the story stagnates at different points with missed opportunities to parse through the characters, but Whitewash is still an intriguing story that can keep viewers interested for 90 minutes. And then, there’s Thomas Hayden Church.
Oh THC (I know him, he lets me call him that). We can all forgive you for plowing, with or without Sandra Oh and Paul Giamatti walking in. It happens to the best of us. Hoss-Desmarais made a brilliantly executed casting decision placing Church at the center of his film. His doltish, unassuming comportment and stares bring as much hilarity and humanity to Whitewash as the writing. As you follow him wandering in forests and building igloos to talk to imaginary policemen and his wrecked snowplow, a strange blend of dismissal and pity sits alongside as Bruce doesn’t try to solve his problems, but just keep living.
I really don’t like the outdoors. I find anywhere not guarded by four walls suspect and I advise the populace to follow my line of thinking. The naturalism genre has been beaten into the ground over the years with good intentions and boring existential stories. Hoss-Desmarais put a man with plenty to mull over in the middle of his native Quebec’s wilderness and made his say, “Huh… well this sucks.” Bruce’s final words in the film, as a sullied Church stares blankly at the camera: “You know, they say ‘Every guilty person is his own hangman.’ They also say, ‘Tomorrow will be a better day.’ You know what I say? Goddamn it’s freezing.”