I like film festivals for a lot of reasons, but one of the best is the way films are forced into context with a number of other, entirely unrelated films. The act of watching multiple films in a day alone creates all sorts of weird unintentional connections and relationships, and doing that day after day after day makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish one film from another when it comes time to buckle down and think about what each film did well, didn’t do well, and what it all meant. When two films play within 24 hours of each other that highlight the successes and failings of the other, looking at them individually seems silly.
Such was the case with Whitewash and Big Bad Wolves. In execution, the films could hardly be more different, but they are both black comedies that made me seriously consider the role of humor in gravely serious situations. Like any good student of George Carlin, I believe people can joke about anything. But those jokes, while I support their right to exist, may be tasteless or insensitive or flat-out horrifying.
Whitewash understands this. Big Bad Wolves does not.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with Whitewash‘s VOD release.]
Director: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
Release Date: May 2, 2014 (VOD)
Whitewash is a story of solitude. In the middle of a blinding snowstorm, Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) accidentally drives his small snowplow into a man wandering in the road. He covers the body and then drives the plow out into the forest. He wakes up to find that the snowplow is stuck, and he is lost and alone. He has no food, he is on the verge of running out of gas (the plow can’t move, but it can provide heat), he has no real supplies, and he is also a killer. It’s just him, the forest, and his big yellow snowplow. He comes across people throughout the film, as treks out to find supplies and keep himself alive, but these interactions are brief and uncomfortable.
But Whitewash also goes into the immediate past. It turns out that, even if that man’s death was accidental (which it seems to have been), the two of them had met before. It would be disingenuous to say they were friends, but they had spent the days leading up the incident together. In fact, Bruce had stopped the dead man from committing suicide (a more beautiful irony I cannot comprehend) and then taken him in. As with any good nonlinear narrative, each new flashback drastically changes how the viewer perceives both Bruce and what he’s done. By the end, I probably would have hit the guy with a snowplow myself.
Big Bad Wolves
Directors: Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales
Release Date: January 17, 2014 (VOD)
Big Bad Wolves deals with a much more serious subject matter, but it deals with it much less seriously. A man has been torturing, raping, and killing young girls and though the police believe they have found the man responsible, a video of some of their enhanced interrogation techniques is posted to the internet and they are pressured to let him go. After another girl is found raped and beheaded, the girl’s father decides to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps the suspected killer, ties him up in the basement of a new house purchased for this purpose, and goes to work. He brings with him another man, the police officer whose enhanced interrogation techniques meant the man walked in the first place. What follows is gruesome, unpleasant, and comical. And that last part is where things start to come undone.
I have written on multiple occasions about the use of either child rape or child murder as a plot device (and I don’t know if that says something about me or about cinema in general), but every time the same question comes into my head: did the film earn the right to use that as a plot device? Death is often treated lightly in film, but child death is something else entirely. Broaching a taboo subject like that is not inherently problematic, but not treating that subject properly turns a film from effective to exploitative. In Whitewash, there is a scene where Bruce, hiding out in a family’s cabin in an attempt to get warm, is discovered by a little girl. She is obviously horrified to find a big man with a gravelly voice rivaled only by Batman, and he tries to keep her quiet by grabbing her and covering her mouth. The following scene is played for laughs, as the girl’s father confronts him (from a distance), but what Bruce did, motivations be damned, is treated in the way that sort of scene deserves.
Big Bad Wolves should be able to offer that same weight, but it doesn’t. The scenes involving child abduction and the aftermaths of the violence aren’t played for laughs, but so much of the violence and horror surrounding them are that the scenes actually seem worse for that. The line between comedy and drama is so tenuous that things that should be funny come off as horrific and things that should be horrific are funny. I laughed a lot when I was watching the film, and that was by design, but it’s a flawed design. Tonal consistency is really important for a film like this, and Big Bad Wolves can’t keep its tone. For the most part, it is played as a comedy. Whether it’s breaking a man’s fingers with a hammer or having an extremely Jewish mother cry about her son refusing to let her visit him while he’s “sick,” there’s a joke in there somewhere, except in those rare moments where it seems like a taboo could go too far. But that actually draws attention to itself, and it makes those scenes feel even more exploitative, like they are from the wrong movie.
Whitewash seems like a drama from the outset, but the comedy grows into it organically. Admittedly, I felt a little weird the first time I laughed, because I hadn’t noticed the subtleties of the shift, but soon it just made sense. The line between drama and comedy (the film never really goes into the horrific) is occasionally blurry, but it works and the filmmakers clearly understood their subject material. Death and isolation are two extremely difficult topics to deal with. Not quite as difficult as those dealt with in Big Bad Wolves, but difficult nonetheless, and so director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and co. should be commended for their work.
Had I not seen Big Bad Wolves so soon after Whitewash, it’s possible that I would have been slightly kinder to it here, or at the very least have more trouble articulating why it doesn’t work. Looking at the two films side-by-side, two films that are different in every way except their broad genre definition, it’s possible to pick apart the successes and failings from each in the context of the other. Further discussion about the failings of Big Bad Wolves would delve too heavily into spoiler territory (I could write several hundred words about the final shot alone), but suffice it to say that there are plenty of things that could be discussed. Now, I’m not advocating not seeing the film. I think it has some merit and I know several people who were able to see past these flaws. But it’s impossible to overlook those issues, especially when dealing with something so inherently disturbing.
And let me also say that Whitewash is not a perfect work either. It’s good, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, but it didn’t blow me away. In a head-to-head fight with Big Bad Wolves, it comes out the clear victor, but it isn’t groundbreaking cinema. But not everything needs to be groundbreaking. Sometimes, movies just need to be good. Whitewash is good, and the score in the big box below reflects the quality of Whitewash. Big Bad Wolves, on the other hand, doesn’t deserve that score. Instead, that film gets a 60. It’s “Decent.” Barely.