Whitewash / Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais  / 2014 / threestar Tribeca Available on Netflix Instant at time of posting

Active Ingredients: Droll humor; Unique setting; Ending
Side Effects: Thematic development; Inconsistent voiceover

[Whitewash plays at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27th.]

Whitewash is close to a one-man show for Thomas Haden Church, and he quietly and unassumingly carries this tricky film. It’s a darkly comic story of existential guilt, or else just the misadventures of a poorly-equipped outdoor survivalist. Either way, French-Canadian director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, like the Coen Brothers’ neighbor to the Great White North, nicely understates both the humor and suspense within the many cosmic jokes he plays on Church’s accidental criminal hiding in the snowy wilderness of Quebec.

Church plays Bruce, an alcoholic and widowed plow driver who accidentally strikes and kills a man in a nighttime whiteout. He buries the body in the snow and keeps driving until he crashes again, deep in the frozen woods. Instead of seeking rescue, Bruce attempts to tough it out alone, stealing supplies when he can and replaying the incident in his mind.

In nonlinear flashbacks, we come to learn that Bruce knew the man he killed. He practices explaining his innocence with police questioners, but probably overplays his calm and ignorance. As the winter drags on, Bruce’s self-imposed isolation begins to get to him. Church has a gift for playing characters as simple-minded and instinctual as Bruce, a similar performance to his perpetual confused would-be criminal in Killer Joe. He betrays little of Bruce’s thought process and simply reacts as the events of the film come to him.

Characters like Bruce often appear in the films of the Coen Brothers, but its the tone of Whitewash that reminds me of those skilled craftsman. While first-time director Hoss-Desmarais surely isn’t on their level of cinematic potency and efficiency, he nonetheless shows a keen understanding of pacing. Whitewash has a killer final note on its mind—one that perfectly contextualizes and expands its thematic concerns—and it gets there on its own time even if some of the developments along the way seem arbitrary. Whitewash is a rich and rewarding first feature from a director to watch.