Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) is a widower and an alcoholic who is no longer able to make a living for himself driving a snowplow due to a drunk driving conviction. Whitewash opens on a snowy night with Bruce behind the wheel of his plow running down a man in the street. After burying the man on the side of the road, Bruce drives off into the wilderness and wakes up the next morning to find his plow stuck miles away from the nearest home. As Bruce comes to terms with his situation, he begins to rehearse his story for the police, which involves remembering the relationship between himself and Bruce (Marc Labrèche), the man he ran over. As Bruce struggles to get by in the wilderness, we begin to understand the relationship between Bruce and Paul and the actions that led Bruce to murder.
Featuring minimal dialogue and only a few key locations, the success of Whitewash is squarely in the hands of Thomas Haden Church. Without knowing the kind of casting options that were available to the producers of the film, I have to say that they made the right choice. Many actors would likely appreciate the opportunity to work with a first-time director in what is, in essence, a one-man show – after all, new talent is exciting, and director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais would go on to win the prize for best new director during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. However, Church brings a powerful physical presence to the movie to supplement his skills as an actor. Church still features much of the boyish charm that made him a sitcom favorite; this charm can be put to good use in Church’s comedic work or turned against itself in a movie like Whitewash. Church has the kind of face that was meant to convey both sadness and the ghost of happier times, and when Bruce is engaged with the environment around him, Church needs very little dialogue to express the complicated relationship between past and present.
Church also chooses to soften the edges of Bruce, choosing to play up his emotional connection to his surroundings rather than the fear of what waits for him back in town. Throughout the course of the film, Bruce is presented with several opportunities to leave his eventual campsite, but he always returns. His character may not even be able to fully articulate why he keeps coming back; even if the idea that he has built his own prison escapes him, he knows that being in the woods is where he belongs. In many ways, Whitewash is the bookend to the youthful “back to nature” idealism of a movie like Into The Wild. It is not that Bruce is particularly committed to living in the woods until he dies, it is simply that he’s created a spot for himself in the middle of nowhere and there are very few good things about the place that he used to be. By the time he has affixed insulation to the doors of his crushed snowplow, and we’ve seen the expanse of litter and foot traffic covering his campground, we realize he will likely never go anywhere else.
As we watch Bruce acclimate himself to the wild in real time, we are also treated to flashbacks of the time the two men spent together before Paul’s murder. These scenes are intended to help explain the events leading to the film’s opening – Bruce is shown as a grieving widower whose life has never recovered after the death of his wife, while Paul is a conniving freeloader who appreciates Bruce’s generosity even while taking advantage of him. And yet, oddly, these are the scenes in the film that work the least. We can understand Bruce’s grief – the loss of a loved one is a universal pain, and Church provides all the back story necessary in his shell shocked performance – but grief to murder is a leap that the movie fails to make. Since the film begins with the murder, we may be able to provide a post hoc rationalization for his actions, but the emotion of the murder itself is poorly established and rings false. Nothing that the film could show us would really explain the kind of grief that would make a man live in the woods and anthropomorphize a snow plow, so why show us anything specific at all?
The result of Whitewash is a cinematic mood piece that, like most films that try and tell a story by capturing a character’s emotional state, is grounded in a standout performance by its lead. Like most mood pieces, it also suffers from problems with pacing and development. There is no clear defining point for where the film should end; each time that Bruce leaves his campsite, only to return a few scenes later, it simultaneously drives the film’s point home while eliminating any chance that the film had of delivering a satisfying conclusion. See it for Church’s performance and to enjoy the cinematic potential of Canadian winter, but be aware that your desire to leave may kick in long before Bruce’s ever will.