It’s easy to see what draws an actor like Thomas Haden Church to a film like “Whitewash.” Though he works steadily and has done well for himself, the deep-voiced, amusingly off-kilter Church has yet to truly build on the Oscar nomination he earned for “Sideways” nearly a decade ago. “Whitewash,” the debut feature by Canadian filmmaker Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, is largely a one-man show, giving that one man plenty of opportunity to flex his acting muscles and show us his chops. It’s a meaty role, a possibly sinister man whose sanity is in question. Except for most of the film taking place in a snowy forest, everything about it sounds appealing to an eager actor.
This is a roundabout way of saying that even if “Whitewash” were terrible, you’d be able to understand why Church made it. And as it turns out, it isn’t terrible, though it isn’t great, either. It lands squarely in the category of Good Enough, a bemusing semi-thriller full of low-key quirkiness that’s elevated by Church’s personable performance.
The film starts boldly, introducing us to a protagonist, named Bruce, whose first actions render him unsympathetic: he runs over a man with a snow plow, hides the body, then tells us in narration that “there’s no way anybody can prove I was drunk…. Tipsy, maybe. But drunk? Unprovable.” We wonder which path the story will take from here, whether our not-drunk snow-plow killer will suffer for his crime, or whether he’ll get away with it. Or who knows: maybe there were mitigating factors that will come to light make the incident seem less dastardly.
Bruce and his plow end up stuck in deep snow in a wooded area some distance away from what little civilization there is in this part of Quebec. To an extent, this development suits Bruce just fine — he needs to lie low for a while anyway. He makes furtive treks into town for food and fuel, and he has an outdoorsman’s survival skills. But even when he’s able to leave the plow, he continues to use it as his base of operations, as if he can’t bear to part with it. He passes the time by practicing the brazenly self-serving conversations he might eventually have with the police.
Flashbacks reveal the story piece by intriguing piece. The man Bruce plowed to death was Paul (Marc Labreche), a dotty Quebecker with suicidal tendencies and money problems, though he’s more chipper than you’d expect given that description. The men are strangers until Bruce’s good Samaritan behavior brings them together and installs Paul on Bruce’s couch for a few nights. Paul has odd ideas about how to make money, and the way he states his tech-industry credentials — “World Wide Web, emails, 2.0, I can do it all!” — makes one skeptical, though it fits with the movie’s general sense of understated eccentricity. (For example: Bruce’s late wife earned a living making glass eyes for dolls, many of which are now displayed in Bruce’s home, with loads of spare eyeballs in the basement.)
The first two-thirds of the movie meander a bit, as Hoss-Desmarais tries to keep us engaged in the story by withholding information. The trick works — sure enough, we remain interested — but it feels like a cheat once we know everything. The last section, though, is tense and darkly funny, with Bruce having to improvise solutions to unforeseen problems, not least of which is his own guilt-stricken conscience and unraveling sanity. Church’s gruff yet good-humored persona makes it hard to predict how Bruce will act from one scene to the next — an imbalance that Church uses to his advantage to keep us on edge. It’s more fun to watch an actor explore a character when the actor himself is hard to classify. When Church’s career is at last reinvigorated, “Whitewash” will be one of the movies people cite as evidence that it should have happened sooner.
B- (1 hr., 31 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.