“They say that every guilty person is his own hangman.”
This claustrophobic film, almost a one-man show, is a painfully simple story of human misfortune and guilt. Whitewash has some similarity to another and better known one-actor film, Locke, in which we watch the central character cope with a moral dilemma as one wrong act disrupts his life, although the characters in Whitewash are rougher and less eloquent, their circumstances more limited.
At the outset of the film, set in rural Quebec in mid-winter, a snowplow driver named Bruce Landry, setting out to work one night, possibly drunk, hits a pedestrian and kills him. As the driver’s voice-over muses on the event, we see him panic and impulsively decide to flee from the scene to avoid the repercussions. He ends up accidentally stranding his vehicle in a snowdrift in a remote wood lot.
We are gradually shown, through flashbacks and voice-over narration, who the driver and his victim are, how they came to be there. The movie meanwhile takes us through Landry’s confused rationalising of his own guilt, his attempts to decide how to act, as he tries to stay hidden and to survive with only his vehicle for shelter. The description sounds inadequate to fill a ninety minute film, but the man’s story, perfectly acted by Thomas Haden Church, draws us in, slowly revealing the events leading up to the accident, letting both the cause and the outcome remain a mystery for most of the movie. We cannot even be sure whether we want to hope for the character’s escape or see him held accountable, as tidbits of information and his own actions lead in both directions, and we are left trying to judge his character by the clues gradually provided.
The look of the film adds to the mood. It is distinctly rural Canadian in its background and situations, from the severe weather and isolated setting to the bilingual dialogue. It is filmed in a very stark way: every scene is dimly lit, the colours muted, the occasional conversations mostly brief and indifferent. The dull winter landscape and the few dreary buildings leave only Landry’s face and voice to provide life and interest, with few exceptions.
Some dark but genuine humour results from Landry’s clumsy efforts to provide for himself in his inadequate shelter and to avoid the authorities, even as his situation grows more precarious, his certainty of the right course of action becomes weaker, and his conviction of his own guilt or innocence becomes increasingly confused. His own ineptitude, and his helpless attempts to make sense of his situation, win the audience’s sympathy and interest. It is a grim and minimal but unexpectedly gripping story.