Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 2, 2014


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

The word subversive kept entering my mind as I watched “Whitewash”, a Canadian film directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais that won best narrative film by a new director at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and is now available as video on demand (including iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/id853831870, Amazon, and XBOX Live.) Not in the FBI sense, but in the sense of subverting film narrative expectations of what it means to be a criminal on the lam.

It is essentially a fugitive from justice film set in the deep snow of northern Quebec that stars Thomas Haden Church, the veteran actor best known for his role as a nearly loveable cad in the road movie “Sideways”. Superficially resembling the pretentious “Deadfall” that starred Eric Bana as a bank robber on the lam in the snowbound backwoods near the Canadian border, “Whitewash” not only throws all clichés overboard but also tells a more exciting story—namely the ways in which a flight from law and order can become self-discovery even if that voyage has comic aspects. When a most ordinary man is thrown on his own resources in a struggle for survival, basic existential questions come into focus just as they would in a Dostoyevsky novel rewritten by Charles Bukowski.

Church plays Bruce, a middle-aged alcoholic living in a dreary northern Quebec town that we first meet accidentally running over a man with a snowplow on a snowy night. Since he has lost his license to drive the plow in another drunk driving accident (he had slammed into a fast food restaurant), he is panic-stricken. This time the charge might be vehicular manslaughter or worse. Without any cool and calculated considerations as to how he can elude the authorities, he disposes of the body, and then drives the plow full-speed into the forest until finally crashing into a tree. In other words, we are not dealing with the sort of self-controlled character played by a young stud like Eric Bana or  Harrison Ford in his prime. Church is playing the same sort of self-destructive loser he played in “Sideways” but one with blood on his hands rather than a glass of Pinot Noir.

The corpse is that of Paul Blackburn, another middle-aged man that Bruce has generously allowed to crash at his house for a couple of days. Demonstrating the need for companionship as well, Bruce has decided to be a guardian angel to Paul, who he has rescued from a suicide attempt. When Bruce catches Paul in the act of burglarizing his deceased wife’s valuable handmade plastic eyeballs used for upscale dolls, he pursues him on the snowplow until fate intervenes to turn him into a comic version of all those resourceful fugitives surviving on a combination of wit and brawn. (It entered my mind that the ingrate thief might have been named in honor of beat poet Paul Blackburn. Given the inventive nature of the screenplay, I’d like to think this was the case.)

Most of the rest of the film consists of Bruce trying to survive in the snowbound woods, making occasional forays into town to buy beer, cigarettes and really crappy food from convenience stores. Once he returns to the incapacitated snowplow that he has turned into a shelter, he ponders his fate in grimly comic terms, evoking a small-time victim of fate rather than a master criminal. When 9 out of 10 Hollywood films are cut from the same cloth, one can only applaud such a daring departure from the norm.

This week the NY Times reported that Canada has eclipsed the US economically, at least for middle-class income. As a sign of its ascending status in the film world as well, “Whitewash” stands out. Just as long as we forget about Rob Ford, our neighbor to the north is a rising star.

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