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Leave No Trace


It's significant that  one of the most moving bits of communication between daughter and father in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace is not an exchange of words.  It an occasional clicking sound, an affirmation between the child and parent.  It's a tolling of animal sympathy and understanding.  A simple, eloquent expression of love beyond speech.  


Delivering her third memorable feature film, Debra Granik wrote the script with her long-time creative partner Anne Rosellini.  Their collaboration in the case Leave No Trace is a masterwork of understatement, if not blatant minimalism.  Both father Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), whom we first meet living secretly amid the lush vegetation of forested public lands somewhere outside of Portland, Oregon, tend toward the laconic in speech.  Granik and Rossellini, like their characters, speak mainly when they have something important to say.

From this source, this minimal script like telling ripples on deep bodies of water, we are left in the very capable hands Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.  Mr. Foster is no surprise, much as he has generally labored as an ace character actor for most of his career, excelling as he's played men of quiet and not so quiet intensity.  Such was the case in the excellent Hell or High Water (2016), Foster the more self-destructive of two Texas brothers robbing banks.

Leave No Trace is based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Brock, itself inspired by a magazine article about a father and daughter living on public land in the Portland area.  Ms. Granik doesn't bother with a lot of exposition, but takes us straight into the forest, straight into the story where we find the close-knit father and daughter going fairly expertly about their life.  Foster and McKenzie apparently bonded in their primitive skills training, spending days learning how to properly wield knives and generally survive in the wild.  


As for Thomasin McKenzie, she's a wonder.  She's not so unlike a woodland creature - striking, alert-eyed, outwardly gentle but quietly tensile of being.  As has become something of a pattern with Granik, she's essentially exposing the talent of a very promising actor to a wider audience (after Very Farmiga in Down to the Bone and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone).  Ms. McKenzie represents at least the third generation of actors in her family, but there is certainly nothing overly-studied in her performance.  Quite the contrary.  As she and Ben Foster quite believably inhabit their forest home, so does McKenzie bring her character completely, flickeringly to life.  It's all the more impressive for one so young (and still relatively inexperienced; McKenzie has done mainly television work in her native New Zealand), as so much of the acting of Leave No Trace's main characters is done with depth and changing weather of their eyes.  


The relative idyll of Will and Tom is finally brought to an end, as it seemingly must.  While the two sit down to a meal on one occasion, we see the father tap his daughter on the leg and  say "drill."  They instantly flee their campsite and go clambering up through the vegetation.  But when it's finally not a drill, there's no hiding from the bloodhounds authorities bring into the forest, acting on the tip of a jogger who spied Tom while reading above a path.  The father and daughter are separated for a time at some sort of social services agency.   Typical of Granik's immersion into a subject, the people in whose hands Will and Tom find themselves are not generic, ruthless bureaucrats, but mental health professionals who do their best by the obviously unconventional parent and child, ultimately placing them at a rural home provided by a sympathetic tree farmer (a welcome appearance from veteran Jeff Kober). 

 As Will and Tom attempt to settle into this new domesticity, along with another period of calm amongst a fairly independent community in remote part of Washington state, we see a fateful rift develop between the pair.  


"Want or need," Tom says to her father, who's put something of a treat into their shopping cart while they're stocking up in a Portland supermarket prior to their discovery.  It's obviously a bit of verbiage between the two that has the solidity of code, which Grank and Rossellini manage to telegraph with little fuss.  Applied to the efforts of the parent and child to run away from any conventional structure, it becomes clear that the father needs it while the daughter increasingly does not want it.  "Did you even try?," Tom asks her father after they run from the home provided by the tree farmer, where the young woman had begun to establish some roots.  Or as she later says to him, youthful integrity wrapped in ragged grammar, "The same thing that's wrong with you is not wrong with me."

  The thing that is wrong with Will in the most specific sense would seem to be post-traumatic stress disorder.  As with everything about this subtle storytelling, what ails this quiet man is not spelled out in any obvious or immediate way.  It is quickly apparent that he prefers to live outside of society, but we don't necessarily know why.  There is a brief, final jerk of awakening nightmare while he shares a tent with his daughter in the forest camp.  The pounding of helicopter blades, the sound that rouses Will, certainly provides a hint.  Some context, some confirmation, is later added when he visits a VA center in Portland (although he's merely seen walking around the facility).


These are writers, particularly Granik, who have been informed by their subjects, as with details like an exchange between Will and another inhabitant of the park, the two men sharing a few words and trading in the sometimes ineffectual ineffectual pharmaceuticals prescribed to Will.  Such under the counter commerce sometimes occurring among those prescribed pain killers, methadone, etc.

Granik has said that one of the things that drew her to Ben Foster for the role of Will was his sympathetic portrayal of other military men on film (The Messenger, Lone Survivor, etc.).  For her part, Debra Granik built her documentary Stray Dog around biker and Vietnam veteran Ron Hall.  The director came to know Hall, who sometimes suffers from PTSD, in the making of Winter's Bone (Hall  memorable as the formidable Thump Milton).

Debra Granik's immersion tends to extend beyond characters to the environment of which they are often inextricably a part.  She used a largely Oregon-based crew to shoot forest scenes, people who understand the climate, beauty and even dangers of the place.  Leave No Trace begins with a few forest postcards courtesy of Granik and her team -  the whispering, waving vegetation, a spider's web heavy with dew and quivering in a light wind, etc.    

Winter's Bone was shot without any sets, Ozark residents allowing Debra Granik the use of their homes and possessions in the film.  It certainly added verisimilitude and would also seem to indicate the director's sympathy for her subjects and the trust that she inspires.  Leave No Trace benefits from vital location shooting in Oregon and Washington and the use of non-professional actors, which is to say real people.  As with Winter's Bone, there's a gathering where various people take turns at playing music, these people and their rituals so beyond the scope of our greater culture.


Scenes from Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (left) and Down
to the Bone. 
Leave No Trace is a film that could please very disparate constituencies.  However, given its limited distribution relative to more thundering summer fare, it's no doubt being seen mainly by the (at least nominally) liberal Americans who haunt art houses.  We're seeing people in this film who, for the most part, are very happy to live removed from big cities and the fleeting concerns of mainstream culture.  These are people who might well detach themselves from the political process....and yet, we're also seeing people who might well have voted for the sitting president of the United States.  Who knows?  But if that did come up, if  voting records could be scrutinized, how much less sympathetically might the  audience of  supposedly liberal viewers look upon these people?

 A wise and focused woman, Debra Granik doesn't waste her time on politics.  There is instead sympathy, compassion, insight.   Such increasingly-rare qualities, along with a reverence and wonder at the extraordinary natural world to which we're made privy in Leave No Trace.  Wherever they're set, Ms. Granik's films continue to mark out a desperately-needed demilitarized zone in our internecine culture wars.  She beautifully tells her stories of struggling Americans, aided in no small part by actors like Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.  All you need to do is look in the eyes of these actors (as with the darkness in those of John Hawkes in Winter's Bone, the desperation in Vera Farmiga's in Down to the Bone), these people.  There's no denying the life, the struggle, our common humanity.  In doing so, hopefully we become more, or at least better human.             


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