Whitewash wastes little time setting up its story. The inciting incident happens within the opening seconds, when a man is mowed down by a bulldozer while trudging along a snowy residential street. The driver, Bruce (Thomas Haden Church), proceeds to collect the body, wrap it in a towel, and stash it in the cab before driving deep into a nearby forest to hide out. From there, writer-director Eamneul Hoss-Desmarais completely switches gears. A full 15 minutes pass before we learn anything about Bruce or the man he killed, but through a series of flashbacks, we eventually learn that Bruce is a lonely, alcoholic widower, and that the man he killed, Paul (Marc Labreche), was a degenerate gambler as well as his only friend. Bruce spends the remainder of the film sequestered in the snow-covered woods, talking to himself, fighting to stay warm, and reconciling his actions.
What starts as a tense thriller eventually evolves into a darkly humorous and astute character study, a Coen brothers-esque comedy of errors by way of a Jack Londonian survival story. The film benefits greatly from this bait-and-switch narrative design, as Hoss-Desmarais dials down or otherwise forgoes exposition, backstory, and character development in favor of an ambiguous, almost ethereal dramaturgical approach. Despite the lack of plot and action on screen, Hoss-Desmarais mines the material for all its thematic worth, pondering notions of guilt, isolation, addiction, and loss; he often frames Bruce against the expanses of his surroundings, pitting him against not only the forces of nature, but the direness of his conduct. It’s a deadly serious film, save for moments when it’s almost surrealistically farcical. In one notable sequence, Bruce spies on a married couple from a shed he’s holed up in, mimicking the husband and wife’s voices in a monotone, sitcom-esque manner. When the couple’s young daughter discovers him asleep the next morning, he lumbers away in a pair of stolen snowshoes, claiming to be a Christian on a camping trip.
Shot entirely on location in northern Quebec during the dead of winter, Whitewash is, like Fargo, blanketed in an expansive, cold whiteness, with only the occasional muted brown of trees as contrast. The surroundings are entirely drab, but Hoss-Desmarais illustrates an austere beauty amid the desolate setting; the images of uninhabited and still landscapes seem culled from Planet Earth B-roll footage. The film might be soothing, like some sort of Waldenesque meditation on man and nature, if not for Bruce’s inane and anxious ramblings, which are pitched somewhere between personal confession and psychotic diatribe. As he proved in Killer Joe, Church has a flair for deranged humor delivered in his trademark deadpan, and in Whitewash, he’s given the difficult task of playing the straight man to his own clown. Throughout the film, he seems to fluctuate between lucid and unhinged, which perfectly matches a film whose quicksilver shifts in tone are the greatest of its surprisingly plentiful virtues.