Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s first fiction film since Winter’s Bone, opens on a father and daughter living isolated on a scrappy but well-wrought campsite, nestled away in a dense forest somewhere on public land. Granik shoots the film’ early scenes from high angles, framing the characters in distant and overwhelmingly green long shots, exposing both their day-to-day, often strenuous routine and the pair’s full immersion in their surroundings. Under her watch they forage for mushrooms, collect rainwater, run drills on where to hide if discovered, and engage in minor squabbles — all in a damp and sometimes chilly wood where even a campfire can prove to be a luxury.
Far from romantic in its depictions, the movie shows the characters dogged throughout by the shadow of organized society — a society we find they’ve never quite broken away from. After our first, rich taste of their routine, it comes as a surprise (minor, early spoiler) to discover that they’re camped just walking distance from Portland, where Will and Tom (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie) go for groceries and trips to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. These two routine errands are closely linked; Will goes to the VA to score pills for his PTSD — pills he then hawks to other local (and seemingly less voluntary) itinerants, and then uses the money for equipment and supplies.
Will and Tom’s relationship through all this is strangely stiff: basically congenial, almost businesslike — affectionate but never all that comfortable. As his daughter, Tom is most often reserved and polite, if not deferential, picking her battles and using her pale, unyielding eyes and subtleties of face and posture to convey most conflicts to us as they arise. Foster’s the more seasoned actor here, but the movie is ultimately McKenzie’s; I’d estimate Foster delivers just 30 lines over his generous portion of screentime. As her father, he conveys some real tension and paranoia beneath a wounded scowl, but his words and actions are marred by a stubborn and paternalistic streak that repeatedly endangers them both.
Granik doesn’t overplay this, however; her camera resists melodramatic staging even as frequent jump cuts remind us it’s still there, and her scenes can often feel unscripted in their sense of seeming true. In Leave No Trace, even shattering, tumultuous events are revealed quietly (discovery and flight are inevitable, recurring motifs) and any attempts to escape from society are matters less of kind than of degree.
This holistic approach to conflict serves a purpose; the movie examines everything it captures critically, but in its context — and rarely picks a side. Whether by doing a job or attempting to parent, everyone onscreen inflicts some sort of pain on others — and generally under the best intentions. This is emphasized ingeniously through changes in and echoes in setting. Scenes at a Christmas tree farm hauntingly recall the lush forest of the movie’s opening; scenes of meals in homes and campsites echo one another likewise in both essence and substance, and color and light tend to feel as though they’re naturally occurring but eerily coincident with mood. Setting and situations seem to act on the characters, refusing to bend to their willful gesticulations — something that applies to Foster’s character most of all.
This air of helplessness is clearest and most pronounced at one early juncture, in which Will and Tom are held separately in captivity, then monitored and psychologically examined by state authorities. Their interlocutors mean well, but the process is still excruciating. As just one part of a battery of psychological tests, a computerized voice asks Will (a widowed, traumatized, and middle-aged veteran in state custody, recall), whether he finds it “hard to imagine having a long life” and “fulfilling [his] goals” — just one question out of 435. As the center of the film’s scrutiny on all possible levels, Foster’s Will is given a lot to bear.
Though he has his fair share of pressures, it’s often hard to feel Will isn’t digging his own grave — deluding himself with his notions of libertarian, wild-man fantasy, and all while on a roundabout form of state support. At the movie’s start, Tom, knowing nothing different, goes along, incessantly playing the role of a good (and awfully proper) daughter in her interactions with her father. It’s tempting for this reason to imagine how their relationship might play out differently had he, though mentally unwell regardless, a son and not a daughter.
Would he be more humble and good-humored, more accepting of disagreement or advice? Would they act more fluidly as a family, or as a team? It’s hard to say, as at many times the movie’s players and its pieces feel intractable; this isn’t a movie that seems to believe deeply in individual power. When it tries, it shows some wrinkles — especially toward the end as it strains towards a somewhat tidy resolution. All the same, Granik’s gaze is otherwise consistent, habitually seeking to observe rather than explain, meditate rather than decide, and examine closely rather than skirt around its characters’ flaws. This last part may be the best part of all — it’s what renders the film both cynically realistic and genuinely humane.
Leave No Trace
Run-time: 109 minutes
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