Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"The absurdly marvellous timing Haden Church has with Labrèche when they discuss glass eyes or the future, makes Whitewash also wonderfully, desperately funny."

Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais' Whitewash is a chillingly unique snow thriller, starring Thomas Haden Church as Bruce, and Marc Labrèche, who as Paul, faces some different challenges. Northern Quebec is the setting, and winter turns out to be more than it seems. "They say every guilty person is his own hangman."

On a very snowy night, we are blown into the icy world of a man at a crossroads. Bruce's life changes forever after encountering Paul, whose personality couldn't be more alien from his, but whose situation is no less urgent. Paul, a hideously dressed stranger, who arrives from nowhere and switches between being funny, pitiful, sleazy and menacing at lightning speed, has a date with death. Bruce learns about decision making and consequences and takes the audience along on a revealing wintry ride of self-discovery.

Bruce's dead wife is given the profession of making dolls' eyes, a first-rate choice that conjures up mental images of ETA Hoffmann's The Sandman and gives the story a flair of German Romanticism.

The absurdly marvellous timing Haden Church has with Labrèche when they discuss glass eyes or the future, makes Whitewash also wonderfully, desperately funny. The scenes involving food, such as burgers tucked into coats, are up there with the best in physical comedy.

Bruce has to confront the basics of survival - food, warmth, shelter. The real physical nature of the performance has a much greater impact than most special effects can artificially manufacture. There is something of the male winter version of Katharine Hepburn's struggle in John Huston's The African Queen about Whitewash - with more guilt and less church.

During my conversation with Thomas Haden Church, who gives one of the most nuanced and stirring performances I have seen this year, he brought up John Huston's Man In The Wilderness (1971) as a point of reference. "I remembered how desperate the circumstances were and him [the character played by Richard Harris] trying to survive in the wilderness with nothing. Obviously this character Bruce [in Whitewash], he has a little bit more at his disposal."

Bruce has a snowplow, which Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais told me was the fourth central character of his movie, next to Bruce, Paul and the elements. "He was the first character in the film. This is where the idea came from. These snowplows become characters in our winters because they're everywhere in the city cleaning up our sidewalks… And then we created the story about Bruce and his ordeal, but then we slowly realized how cool it was going to be if the object, the weapon of his crime would end up being his shelter, what he depends on. How could someone need the object of his crime to survive?"

It becomes much larger than just this character. So many people are dissatisfied with their lives in the city who have a romanticised idea of living in the wilderness. Walden without the real circumstances.

Parallel to Cristian Mungiu's Beyond The Hills, which takes place in an isolated convent in a very snowy Romania, Whitewash challenges the bigger picture, the lack of education and the scarcity of opportunities that push people to react in forlorn ways. When the world created in the wilderness of the bitter forest is visually more beautiful than the place the character comes from, sentimentality ices up.

Whitewash, which won Hoss-Desmarais Best New Narrative Director honors at this year's Tribeca Film Festival is a film that comes from the cold. Snow is the speculum through which man and machine are studied. When civilization offers little shelter, it is difficult to romanticise nature.

Reviewed on: 29 Jun 2013
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A man finds an encounter with a stranger changes his life forever.

Director: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais

Writer: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, Marc Tulin

Starring: Thomas Haden Church, Marc Labrèche, Vincent Hoss-Desmarais, Geneviève Laroche, Isabelle Nélisse

Year: 2012

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Canada

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