Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) Talks Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’ Whitewash

After spending my life directing plays and movies and receiving my share of reviews...

After spending my life directing plays and movies and receiving my share of reviews – some good, some bad, some indifferent – I now find myself having gone over to the dark side and becoming a critic. May God have mercy on my soul.

No one ever sets out to make a bad movie. So why are there so many of them? The short answer is that there is often a lack of cohesiveness, that the many egos involved are pulling in different directions and in the attempt to please everyone, no one is ultimately pleased, especially the audience.

Whitewash is not a bad movie, but it is a flawed one. Directed by French Canadian Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais it looks like it was a bitch to make. Shot in the snow-covered forests of Quebec, everyone involved is clearly freezing their asses off. But as Billy Wilder said, no one goes to see a movie because it came in on budget, and even fewer show up because the filmmaker nearly killed himself shooting the film.

The story involves a laid-off snowplow driver, played by the formidable Thomas Haden Church, who is driven to commit a murder. What makes this even more interesting is that he has saved the life of the very man he later kills, played by the wonderfully smarmy Marc Labrèche.

It’s clear they were going for a Fargo-like story of desperation and death in the snow-covered northland. But unlike the Coen brothers’ classic, Whitewash is told through a mixture of voice-over and disjointed Tarantino-style timelines so we’re always wondering if we’re in the present or the past. If the film had only been told in real time it could have worked quite well, but unfortunately the director and his editor, Arthur Tarnowski, have attempted to “improve” the film with disastrous results.

Hitchcock said that suspense can only be achieved if the storytelling is crystal clear. Suspense is created when the audience knows more than the characters (unlike a mystery when the characters know more than the audience). So any confusion in the minds of the viewers about what is transpiring onscreen derails the possibility for tension. And this unfortunately becomes the undoing of Whitewash.

By deliberately mixing up the timeline, any attempt to create clarity – and, in so doing, tension – is negated. You can almost hear the editor making his case, “We’ll start with the murder and grab the audience by the throat, then we can backtrack and show what led up to the crime.” But as anyone who has traveled through snow-covered paths knows, backtracking ain’t easy.

I get the feeling that the narrative was originally much more straightforward: Church discovers someone attempting to commit suicide by asphyxiating himself in his snow-covered car and rescues the poor man by removing the hose connected to the exhaust pipe. This makes us like Church’s character and we like him even more when he brings the fellow home, feeds him and gives him a place to stay. But no good deed goes unpunished and the Samaritan is soon betrayed by the man whose life he has just saved.

But maybe test screenings or an impatient producer didn’t want us to wait the 15 minutes or so setting up the story, and instead urged Hoss-Desmarais to jump ahead to the climax and adopt the hipper disjointed timeline. Too bad it’s at the expense of creating any suspense and severely damages audience involvement with the characters.

But there are still things to like about Whitewash. Church turns in another terrific performance as an everyman driven to madness and self-destruction. This actor has been tackling tricky multi-leveled roles since he broke through in Sideways in 2004. He is not afraid to take on quirky characters who are often less than sympathetic, and he was fantastic in William Friedkin’s excellent film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ disturbing Killer Joe (a film that will forever dampen my appreciation of fried chicken). And the cinematography by André Turpin makes you really feel the bitter bone-chilling cold of the Great White North.

But I’m not sure why the movie is called Whitewash. There is little time spent covering up the crime itself and Church’s attempts to do so are pretty minimal. At one point, he goes back to where he hid the body in the snow (recalling Steve Buscemi’s failed attempts to find the buried money in Fargo) which made me wonder how Church could locate the corpse so easily. Maybe the title is just a reference to the unending whiteness of the bleak terrain.

And one more small nagging plot point: why does Church’s character still have his snowplow after he was fired for drunkenness? I know Canadian business practices are far more humane than ours, but don’t they need someone else to plow the roads?

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.