Two tales of survival, both grim downers
IF Canadian movies have a reputation for being dour and downbeat, the two opening this week are not going to do anything to reverse that impression. The Disappeared and Whitewash are movies that touch on common Canuck themes — survival, masculinity, madness — shot with a maximum of minimalism. Both depict battles against the elements. Both include at least one attempted suicide. Both feature somewhat recognizable American actors in the foreground. Both end on a note of ambiguity. One needn’t expect sellout crowds for either. The Quebec-made Whitewash is the more interesting of the two. It’s being billed as a story of survival and redemption, but the film’s most redemptive act is a good deed for which its hero is relentlessly punished. Thomas Haden Church ( Sideways) is Bruce, a snowplow operator living a bitter existence in a remote community in rural Quebec. In the chronologically fractured narrative, it emerges that he is a widower who has hit the bottle to cope with the death of his wife. In a market parking lot, he comes upon Paul (Marc Lebréche), an even more desperate character attempting to kill himself. Bruce intervenes and tries to befriend Paul, a degenerate gambler whose debts — monetary or ethical — are beyond his reach. It turns out Paul is not worthy of the life-saving gesture. Their relationship concludes with Bruce on the run from the authorities, taking refuge in his snowplow, stuck deep in the snowy Quebec woods. Director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, making his feature debut, gets thespian bang for (presumably) limited bucks from Church, an actor whose penchant for hangdog loners gets taken to a new level with a consistently compelling portrait of isolation taken to its limit. The Disappeared is a more familiar tale of survival on the sea. It’s set entirely on open water in the Atlantic, where six crew members of a sunken fishing vessel attempt to make their way home, paddling more than 300 kilometres in a couple of leaky dories. The American in this otherwise Canadian cast is Billy Campbell ( Once and Again, The Killing) as Mannie, a first mate whose wounded arm promises lots of juicy dramatic fireworks.
In this stressful situation, fractures emerge between the ship’s crusty skipper (Brian Downey) and the rebellious crewman Pete (Shawn Doyle), between a bitter father (Gary Levert) and his inexperienced son (Neil Matheson), and between the wounded Mannie and everyone else. Written and directed by another feature newcomer — Edmonton-born Shandi Mitchell — The Disappeared was unlucky to be released in the same proximity as All Is Lost, a more accomplished movie that demonstrates it is possible to build dramatic tension with practically no dialogue and no supporting cast. Even so, this is a fairly accomplished first feature, shot on location under presumably arduous circumstances; Mitchell has a sure hand at the rudder, even if her narrative vessel is as roughhewn and leaky as its dories.