Eight years on from Winter’s Bone, director Debra Granik offers up Leave No Trace starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, an intricately crafted and haunting drama, based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.
“Your socks burned you,” scolds Will (Foster) when he discovers his daughter, Tom, hiding in the undergrowth of a sprawling urban park just outside Portland, Oregon. You could be forgiven for thinking that they are spending a father-daughter weekend in the wild, bonding and playing games. When they return to their camp, we realise that this is not a weekend adventure – this is their home.
Granik drip-feeds us information about Will and Tom’s life, relying the physicality of Foster and McKenzie’s performances rather than dialogue. They are so well attuned to one another, it feels as if we can read their thoughts.
With his wild-eyed expression, Foster’s Will is an earthy man of the woods. He’s a veteran, but we never discover why he left the military. He teaches his daughter how to cover her footprints. There are strict drills on how to avoid detection, followed by games of chess and reading from an encyclopaedia by the campfire.
Granik doesn’t linger on the natural beauty of the surroundings. There is no sentimental mysticism here. Instead, the wood is a place to forge an existence as larder, shelter and home. The pair are soon expelled from their Eden when Tom is discovered by a hiker. Their camp upturned, they are rudely thrust back into conventional society. Relocated by social services, Will gets a job harvesting Christmas trees. Meanwhile, Tom is sent to school.
Granik is at her most pointed here, showing the icy realities the social services employ in evaluating the pair. Tom is bright for her age, much to the shock of officials. Will meanwhile is put through an excruciatingly blunt pop quiz, assessing how able a parent he is. It’s never deliberately cruel, merely a blunt protocol to re-ingest them into the system, so we can all keep calm and carry on.
The idea of a life lived off the grid, which leaves no mark on modern society, feels at odds with today’s cult of individualism and egotism. It’s this that creates the dramatic thrust of the film. The set up has us hungry to know what happened to cause such a drastic decision? Because of this, Granik never needs flashy dramatic narrative reveals. Instead she keeps us holding on, tense that she might devastate us at any moment.
Leave No Trace’s real power lies in how intelligently and empathetically Granik engages with the subject of America’s marginalised people. Characters broken, rejected, isolated, and betrayed by society are sympathetically rendered, in a haunting tale.
Gradually, Tom becomes increasingly curious about the world, wanting to put down roots. For Will returning to society seems impossible. He can pretend but never belong. In one achingly poignant moment Tom, with no hint of anger, comes to a realisation, saying, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.” It’s like a sucker punch to the gut.
For all his attempts to scrub out signs of his existence, Will remains a loving father. Tom is his indelible mark on the world, his trace, and this is where Leave No Trace’s emotional weight rests. There is a tender grace to the closing moments, one that quietly speaks of Will’s psychological scars, and rests in the hope that Tom will forge her own path.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh