Thomas Haden Church does some heavy lifting as the main character of Whitewash, a survival thriller that takes place in the woods of Quebec, but keeping this movie going requires more than one man. Haden Church is at his craggiest as Bruce, an alcoholic widower who lost his job as a snow plower after being arrested for driving under the influence. He’s first seen hitting a man with his plow as a bottle of booze rattles under the driver’s seat. The majority of the subsequent 90 minutes are spent in the increasingly spun-out company of this character as he seeks refuge in the woods, occasionally venturing out to forage for supplies. Eventually, the film gets into Bruce’s backstory and metes out some details about the mysterious dead man, but until then the viewer is left in a snowblind limbo that makes it awfully difficult to stay engaged.
Whitewash lacks any real urgency, even when it’s possible that Bruce could be in serious danger; his paranoia about being caught is justified, and the snow’s threats to life and limb are no joke. Every time a flashback reveals more about Bruce and the dead man, the movie perks up a little, only to dive back into the snow a few minutes later. The information provided about the hero’s previous life isn’t grounded in any particular reality; it feels like director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and co-writer Marc Tulin were just spitballing ideas and hit upon something a little creepy and overly symbolic. And the most telling detail in the movie, the one that’s supposed to make viewers rethink everything they’ve assumed about the characters, is so fleeting that it barely registers.
The overwhelming feeling Whitewash inspires is a blank daze, brought on by the sight of Haden Church struggling through the snow on various errands or passing out and nearly freezing to death. Bruce occasionally talks out loud; he practices what he might say to investigating officers, he talks to the occasional human, he narrates the lives of people he spies on, but nothing he says is particularly insightful. At worst, it’s unintentionally funny. “You sure have a nice round bottom. I’d like to give it a going-over,” he intones, watching a man and a woman in a nearby house as he half-heartedly masturbates from inside a shed.
The tricky part about making an effective survival thriller like this bare-bones affair is that there isn’t much to distract the viewer from the weaker aspects. Visually, Whitewash looks fine; the wide shots of Bruce trekking through the Canadian woods are effective, and the close-ups of Haden Church’s leathery face and battered feet are striking. His performance isn’t bad, either. Marc Labrèche is also solid as the type of guy who’s the very definition of, “No good deed goes unpunished.” There’s just something slightly off about the whole project. Maybe rejiggering the order of the flashbacks would have made the whole affair more compelling and the long snowy struggle easier to power through. A more dynamic character or script would have gone a long way to help audiences find their way through this storm.