“Leave No Trace” is a Great American Film (and An Antidote To What Ails Our Soul)
If you want to immerse yourself in two hours of sublime compassion, see “Leave No Trace.” It’s a balm for our buffeted, hurting souls.
In part, its setting of the lush green rainforests of Oregon rest the eye, but the real sense of peace comes from knowing you are in the hands of the observant, humane filmmaker Debra Granik. The film’s pact with you, really almost a dance between director and audience, is that “Leave No Trace” will not follow expected beats or overindulge your curiosity for character backstory; there will be clues on the trail, but nothing to trick you or stop you in your tracks with cliche or easy targets.
Only after “Leave No Trace” ends, when you sit a little stunned in your seat, might you notice how purposeful and narratively strong the film was, each detail accreting delicately, artfully and still somehow, fiercely. The film’s sense of time unfolding in the present, the “now”, starts right away, as Granik unveils a setting right out of a myth: deep in the woods, a man and a his daughter, paradisiacal solitude, fear of intrusion. Along with the gorgeous cinematography, the sound recordings are essential here, the buzz of the insects and the back-and-forth of the birds match the tension inherent in the pair’s survival, even as what that survival means for each of the two is moving towards a necessary precipice.
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) seem to have been hiding outside of modern life in an immense Oregon national park for some years now; they live in makeshift tarps and havens, eat what they find. Tom’s mother is alive only through Ben’s memories and mentions of her. Even as Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosselini (working from the novel “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock) detail their resourcefulness and put you in the place of worrying about them, you still may find yourself confronting your own impatience in questions like wondering how a growing teen gets her clothes and necessities. Much like the essentialness indicated in the title, you get what you need when you need it; it’s the rare film that confronts a moviegoer with its own anxiety even as it provides a meditative corrective. The answers as they are revealed are satisfying on a basic level, but are open-ended enough to tantalize you with more questions. Just like life.
“Leave No Trace” changes when the two are briefly unguarded, and it’s psychologically telling which of the them makes a seemingly simple mistake that leads to their discovery. From reading even the barest of synopsis, and knowing that the story turns on the question of what will happen to them once the “system” pulls them out of the woods and into the ugly concrete and cold artificial lighting of government bunkers, I was ready for one kind of movie. A large part of my affection and joy for this movie was earned because it never really become that kind of movie; it glances at it, and certain inevitable choices must be paid heed, but “Leave No Trace” has plenty of room for surprises, and once you see that, you can further relax into the storytelling. Paradoxically, Will and Tom also find they must experiment with the ability to surrender if there is any chance of retaining their powerful, subtle bond. (The comparison may feel left field, but I was reminded of another movie that created tension slowly, “Call Me By Your Name,” and the way your expectation of stereotypical villains is upended; the major antagonist turns out to be “Time”, and the same can be said for this film.)
Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie are complete artistic partners with the filmmakers. I’ve been a fan of Foster’s since the teen film “Get Over It”, and, as a “Six Feet Under” devotee, my appreciation certainly deepened with his indelible performance as Claire’s confused, sexually mercurial boyfriend Russell. His intensity and charisma stood out even in a cast full of forceful actors (its amazing what a launchpad that show was.) Foster’s coiled power has been too often used in subsequent years to portray sociopaths, but “Leave No Trace” gives him plenty of room to show multiple shades in what our culture easily calls a “hero” (a U.S. veteran) but for whom heroism is just being able to manage the psychological damage of war while raising a daughter in the only setting he finds tolerable.
It’s no problem believing McKenzie was raised in the woods; she inhabits Tom with a natural grace. Her line-readings have tiny question marks encoded in them, as though Tom’s curiosity about the world can no longer be answered by the stashed encyclopedias her father has used to school her. Granik has cast well before, eliciting startling, vivid performances from Vera Farmiga in “Down to the Bone” and Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.” There’s such transparency in McKenzie’s work you see whole lines of dialogue just in her pauses and searching eyes.
“Leave No Trace” is a poetic film in a particularly enjoyable way; there are symbols and metaphors that may look a bit obvious on the page, but which appear subtly and with a certain logic onscreen. When Tom starts to argue with her father, conflicted with a teenager’s desire to both rebel and obey at the same moment, in the background we can see a wood-crafted plaque on which to hook “Keys”; it represents Tom’s emergence as a person with her own agency, but also looks exactly like the kind of yard-sale “find” you’d see in their new location. There are a few scenes in which Tom is patiently taught about beekeeping that serve also to speak to her desire for community, and indeed, the realization that community is as necessary as solitude is a theme of the film. When a piece of jewelry with a seahorse’s encircled tale is introduced, it finds its echo in a closing image of a burled fern glistening in the sun. The symbolism is also pleasing because it fits so easily into the contours of the story in ways that make you smile at the care that has gone into “Leave No Trace”; what a relief to be in a theater with a work that doesn’t feel like its art has been killed by committee. The textures are reminiscent of the layered simplicity in great neorealist films, and of the wise humanity seen in the work of Jonathan Demme and Kelly Reichardt.
The film’s radiant naturalism extends also to wonderful performances by the supporting cast, including the always welcome Dale Dickey as a woman who has known enough veterans to respect their mysteries, as well as enough teen girls to know theirs too. Dickey’s plain, raspy voice and inflections feel exactly right; she seems to have stepped out of a documentary, and you want more time with her. Dana Millican shines as a social worker who is torn between her justifiable concerns and the preservation of what’s best for the family. (The movie doesn’t flinch from the significant dangers Will has exposed Tom to, but it doesn’t dwell on them either, trusting you to constantly play a weight-scale game in your head. Will and Tom instinctively recoil from the alienation of contemporary life, even as Tom begins to discover the beauty of connecting with people her own age?)
Much was made in our last presidential election and its aftermath of the voicelessness of the “everyday American.” But as we see now, and obviously could see and hear before, Trump’s voice and that of his followers is so loud, so strident they drown out the voice of the truly marginalized. Bluster was (and is) mistaken for genuine articulation. And that’s so often true of electoral politics, no matter its promises of concern for the “common man”, and even the way “patriotic” campaigns tout veterans (but not their troubled re-adjustments.) If Trump’s military parade happens, you can imagine it holds no resonance, no glory for former soldiers like Will, who are haunted by their participation in violent global conflicts that stretch on and on for years, the shifting goals always in flux. What does “winning a war” even look like today, when so many who have fought in them or who have been affected by them are now lost? As Anthony Lane observes in his review in The New Yorker of this film, “Only after the movie ends do you understand what Debra Granik, with a consummate sleight of hand, has done. Here, among the peaceful trees, without a shot fired in anger, she’s made a war film.” I would only add: an anti-war film.
Because here, by studying two very specific people, we see the real impact of war, and how often it destroys community, and despite the nationalistic cloak and chanted promises of support at the outset, it frequently breaks the hearts and bonds of the very families it claims to protect. Can the the voice of “the voiceless” ever be heard above the din of bellicose warmongering, whether its shouted from podiums or in all caps on tweets? You can understand the despair that lies underneath Will’s retreat from our news cycles and “thank you for your service” platitudes.
The role of “giving voice to the voiceless” is more historically and effectively often taken up by the artist; its the job of the writer, the lyricist, the sculptor and yes the filmmakers to listen, to reflect, to try to express the pain of the forgotten. (No wonder that in the realms of topsy-turvy-trumpy propaganda, artists are cast as “elitists.”)
As pacific as “Leave No Trace” is, with its verdant images and empathetic warmth, it may also leave you shaken and reverberating with questions. What has happened to our national soul? What is the price of the immense trauma being caused around our world? What is the cost of denying the suffering we inflict by chanting jingoistic slogans? Right now throughout the world and in America there are human beings who cannot pay for their medicine or their dinners. But it’s not the self-focused politician who truly remembers them; with “Leave No Trace”, we see it’s the poets.