Review: Leave No Trace (2018)


With Winter’s Bone in 2010, Debra Granik delivered an incredible neo-noir set in the Ozarks and discovered a major talent in Jennifer Lawrence. Eight year later, Granik may have repeated such star-making success with an even better film. Leave No Trace, her first narrative feature since Winter’s Bone, is a quiet father-daughter drama starring Ben Foster and unknown New Zealand actress, Thomasin McKenzie, who has delivered one of the most assured, quiet performances in years. However, unlike Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is not defined by grit or darkness. Instead, it’s a film as stark and stunning as the Oregon forest where it’s set; and like the quiet reverence of that forest, within the silence and stillness of the frame lies an overwhelming undercurrent of emotion.

The film begins in the depths of the forest outside Portland, Oregon. We watch as Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) go about their daily routines in the forest, where they have presumably been living for quite some time. We don’t initially learn the details of why they’re living there, but through the opening few scenes, it’s teased out that Will is a war vet suffering from PTSD and that they’re homeless-by-choice, finding a peace and refuge in the woods which they wouldn’t in the city. Eventually their idyllic existence comes to an end when a jogger spots Tom and promptly calls the Park Service, who ferret them out and deliver them to Veterans Affairs. Tom and Will are set up in a trailer at a Christmas Tree farm and try to adjust to ordinary life with varying degrees of success.

Although you’d assume that the central conflict of the film would be fueled by the government interlopers who think they know what’s best for Will and Tom, Granik actually focuses on the relationship and push-pull between Will and Tom themselves. Will wants no part in the ordinary world and it’s inevitable that he’ll eventually bolt for the woods again and take Tom with him. Although she loves her father, who has been nothing but caring and protective, Tom doesn’t automatically want to share his isolated life. She likes being around people and learning from them. For instance, soon after they settle on the farm, we watch Tom bond with a young farmer and join him as he attends a class for rabbit owners. She watches with curiosity and strokes the ears of the rabbit with care. In a lesser film, Tom’s curiosity would be transformed into a romantic interest in the young farmer, as mainstream storytelling simplifies emotions and falls back on easy narratives. However, Leave No Trace is wise enough to understand the subtleties of her emotions and show that she simply wants to share time with another person and gently experience his passion.

What makes the struggle between Will and Tom so fascinating is that they never verbalize their differing thoughts until late in the film. Circumstances shape how people interact and Will and Tom have been living away from people for so long that they don’t express themselves through words. The actors turn inward in their performances and let body language, tone, and the careful choice of words indicate their feelings. This approach could be dull in some films, but in Leave No Trace it’s hugely affecting. 

Ben Foster, an actor who’s often cast due to his skill at conveying a simmering instability under his stoic surface, channels that confusion into a profound portrait of quiet suffering. In films like Hell or High Water, this instability manifests in anger, but here, it reads as pain and trauma. Foster’s defining tell here is his inability to make eye contact with anyone except his daughter. It’s as if looking into their eyes activates his trauma and transports him back to the hells of war. Of course, characters never say as much and Granik never uses her camera in such a way as to bluntly spell this out for you. She favours a delicate touch, using longish takes at a medium distance to let the actors do the work.

If Foster uses his eyes to communicate his feelings, McKenzie uses her chin. Throughout the film, Tom seems remarkably calm and her face and voice register little emotion, except for a quivering chin that betrays her true feelings. It’s the sort of shaking quiver that usually precedes tears, but with her, it rarely gives way to a full outburst. When she wants to disagree with her father, her words remain steady and supportive, but her chin lets us know that’s she holding back from bursting into tears and letting her emotions pour forth. Such an approach is hugely moving, as it wordlessly communicates Tom’s struggle in a visceral manner. That we’re allowed to observe Tom in such a personal, quiet manner speaks to Granik’s intimate understanding of her actor’s strengths and her wise decision to use a simple visual approach to unleash the power of McKenzie’s face.

Although the most significant moments in the film are the quiet exchanges between Will and Tom, Granik does more with the camera than rely on medium close-ups. She smartly takes advantage of the gorgeous Oregon forest in the film’s wide compositions. In the opening scenes, the overwhelming green of their home in the woods brings the frame to life and makes simply watching the film a visual delight. The crispness of digital photography does Granik a favour here, as the amount of detail and light captured in a digital image lets us see more of the natural world; a more analogue film approach would plunge too much of the film into shadows and remove minute textual details from the frame.

There are extended sequences where Leave No Trace matches the beauty of a BBC nature documentary, but the film never abandons the personal perspective of its characters. Despite the potential for heavy plot conflict, Granik essentially ignores the larger expositional questions in favour of focusing on these characters’ relationship. For instance, you never get a midnight flight into the woods or a chase with law enforcement officers. Instead, you get moments of a father and daughter resting their foreheads on each other, or of a fellow vet lending his emotional support animal to Will in order to “help him back from the nightmares,” or a kind middle-aged trailer park landlord (the wonderful Dale Dickey) letting Tom know that she won’t take her new home away from her. You get moments of wounded human beings trying to connect with each other and embrace the people around them. In essence, Leave No Trace shows us two isolated people joining a community. 

Early in the film, a government agent asks Tom why she sleeps in the same tent as her father. In response, Tom matter-of-factly states that “It’s warmer with two people.” Like this plainspoken wisdom, this remarkable film shows that the world can be a cold place, but by sharing your warmth with others, you can hold back the frost.

9 out of 10

Leave No Trace (2018, USA)

Directed by Debra Granik; written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Peter Rock; starring Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey.