By Jacob Mertens.
Left buried in the formidable winter of Northern Quebec, Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) dwells in the cramped cabin of a snow plow. He drinks melted ice and eats tree bark, waits for the gas to ebb and the plow’s heat to die, then strikes out to forage for supplies. He has willfully detached himself from society, abandoning a house that sits only miles away for the cold wilderness. He robs nearby neighbors for food and gas, trudges through the snow for days in aimless pursuit of shelter, and all his wandering is conditioned by the opening moments of the film. Consider a snowed-in night, and Bruce driving his plow through the roads in a drunken fluster. He can hardly see the path ahead, a narrow swath of snow illuminated by his headlights, and suddenly strikes a man doubled over and waiting for him. Moments later, Bruce confirms what the audience must already know, that the man died instantly. He disposes of the body but feels the nettle of guilt, and so refuses to return home. Soon, the complicated emotions of his crime influence the course of Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ Whitewash. The film ambles from one scene to the next, with little dialogue to sustain a conventional story and, for the most part, only an individual performance to hold the viewer’s attention. Nevertheless, the character’s self-imposed exile proves too peculiar and too singular for the film to fall into the trappings of cinematic doldrums.
Bruce seems hell bent on destroying himself but cannot shake the instinct to preserve his life. So he settles for a purgatory befitting a poem by Dante Alighieri: We travers’d the deserted plain, as one/Who, wander’d from his track, thinks every step/Trodden in vain till he regains the path¹. Bruce continues to drift amidst the pines, cannot ‘regain’ a path to salvation or forgiveness, and thus he doubles back. He finds the dead man’s body still left buried in the woods and unearths him. He attempts to sink the man in a frozen lake, as if the guilt will go down with him. As he moves about nature, a lost soul left chattering his teeth, the film ruminates on flashbacks of Bruce and the dead man, now seen as familiar and given a name. Paul, played by Quebec actor Marc Labrèche, is a cloying salesman who forces his way into Bruce’s lonely life—an alcoholic widower who barely says two words surely makes for great company, so who can blame him? Still, Paul’s intentions regarding his insistent attempts to befriend Bruce bare the mark of desperation. The man thinks like a fiend, he hides under a snake-oil charm, and the viewer can feel it. And yet, the moments directly proceeding his death, accidental or not, remain hidden until the end. Whitewash prefers to give the punishment of a frostbitten solitude free rein.
Whether Bruce deserves his banishment or not is moot. Ultimately, he has side-stepped any trial or investigation that might come for him, only to embrace a sentence far more vexing than prison. It is as if he has conceded his fate to nature, has asked for death if he should deserve it (perhaps in small part because his life did not hold much joy beforehand anyway). Even so, his stubborn will to live remains a constant contradiction to his attempts to let the wilderness hang his noose. The two instincts vie with each other, and if Bruce is holding out for revelation all he seems to find is the internal struggle of suicidal poets, of Hamlet rehearsing lines to a skull or Sylvia Plath pretending to be a mirror. His attrition gains no lasting context, becomes routine instead, and by the end his remorse is gracefully numbed by the uninterrupted cold. He accepts a new life as one carved out by circumstance, less a product of fate than his own indecision.
The film insists on finding beauty in the struggle though, and succeeds surprisingly well. In particular, the camera work involved in following Bruce’s opening night drive into the blizzard feels outright transcendent. Thomas Haden Church also commands the film with the kind of dead-pan grief that might garner awards, if only Whitewash could find an audience. Looking back, I do not think I have ever seen Church as good as he is in this movie, carrying minimal dialogue with a steadfast grit that cannot help but feel wasted on the character’s stalled redemption. Admittedly, with the strength of Bruce’s character apparent, I had hoped his life would be restored. I became invested in it. But Whitewash does not care for my need of closure, it laughs at me for it and revels in its inherent incongruity. Indeed, a man who very much wants to live and to die, who staggers around waiting for the wind to pitch him into one direction or other, does make for a strange portrait—one well suited for the blank canvas of snow.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.