Canadian Winter - What a Villain!

(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais Writ. Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, Marc Tulin
Starring: Thomas Haden Church, Marc Labrèche
A scene from Whitewash, an eOne Films release.
Only in Canada could someone make a menacing thriller about snow. Well, maybe only here and in Fargo. Newcomer Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, however, creates an unnervingly cold thriller amidst a menacing snowstorm in the blustery Whitewash. Whitewash is a chilling black comedy that makes a villain out of the frigid Canadian winter.

Whitewash stars Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) as a creepy snowplough driver named Bruce. Whitewash affords the viewer little insight or backstory into Bruce’s situation, for Hoss-Desmarais and co-writer Marc Tulin simply offer a mysterious bit of voiceover as Bruce motors through a heavy snowstorm and ploughs down a seemingly random dude on the street (Marc Labrèche from Denys Arcand’s Days of Darkness). Said dude, as the flashbacks reveal through a masterfully elliptical editing job by Arthur Turnowski, is a man named Paul whom Bruce welcomed into his home. Bruce actually met Paul by stopping him from killing himself in the parking lot of a dépanneur, so Whitewash builds a mysterious case that resembles a bizarre collision of an accident, a homicide, and a suicide.

The film crosscuts between the peculiar relationship of Bruce and Paul preceding the crash with scenes of Bruce stranded in the woods following his flight from the scene of the accident in a mildly drunken haze. The cold and the isolation precipitate a storm of madness as Bruce pieces together the extent of his culpability in Paul’s death. Church carries the film in a weirdly fascinating performance as Bruce loses his hold on reality and braves the elements. Some moments of twisted insanity allow Church’s performance to wrestle with Bruce’s guilt, while interludes of darkly comedic escapism position Bruce as a kind of twisted hero who did the right thing. To each his own as a mean to survive.

Labrèche, likewise, is a drolly odd figure. He plays Paul like a funny sidekick and the character is far more obvious a loser than the man who kills him is. One of Whitewash’s many mysteries, however, involves getting a read on Labrèche’s character and deciphering whether Paul intended to stand in the way of the plough during the storm. Bruce recalls several times in voiceover that he could have sworn Paul was smiling when the two locked eyes in the split-second before the impact. Both men are therefore beguilingly perverted clowns in this strange and atmospheric character study.

Bruce and Paul’s relationship, however, never quite feels credible in the increasingly convoluted convergence between past and present. Both men are mysteries, but their kinship seems more farfetched and more implausible as timelines intersect. That’s a shame, though, since Bruce’s descent into madness in his snowy woodland hideaway has a chilling air of realism.

The premise itself—that one could be lost and threatened in the cold Canadian landscape—is perfectly plausible. A wrong turn in a thick snowfall, like the one Bruce takes, could easily lead a driver down the same road. The atmosphere of Whitewash is coolly suspenseful, for cinematographer André Turpin (Incendies, Laurence Anyways) capturing the natural elements of the film—trees, snow, and Church’s increasingly off-kilter face—and morphing them into a Fargo-like dream place. A few expertly choreographed shots, such as one doozy of a take as Bruce enters his plough-cum-snow-fort, put the audience inside the mind of a mad man with as effortless a pretense to realism as the setting itself.

This taut, cool, and atmospheric thriller marks an impressive debut for Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and marks another notable offering from Canuck producers Kim McCraw and Luc Déry (Incendies, Gabrielle). Whitewash is a chilling slow burn of a thriller, a baffling mystery, and a morbidly amusing comedy alike.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Whitewash is now available on home video.

What did you think of Whitewash?