Leave No Trace (2018) Debra Granik
Leave No Trace is pure, essential cinema. I was awestruck and dumbfounded by the sheer brilliance of Debra Granik's follow up to Winter's Bone (2010). It took me a good few moments to compose myself and then I had to begin processing what i'd just experienced. An astonishing work of art by a filmmaker not just at the height of her powers, but at the very top of the art form.
The film can be read on so many levels. It asks questions of its audience that I'm still trying to understand, answer and find some resolution over. And it does so with subtly, grace, beauty and compassion. At no point does Granik reveal a point of view. She never tells you how to feel as her gripping, heartbreaking story unfolds. Instead she effortlessly guides you through the narrative letting you challenge yourself to try and understand whether the decisions these characters make are right or not. In this way the film feels humanistic. The story's characters are flawed. They don't have the answers we all crave. But by never judging their actions or moralising their decisions, Granik delivers a emotional masterpiece which ranks as one of the greatest films of the decade.
We begin in the woods where, it quickly becomes apparent, Will and Tom have been living for some time. We learn that Will is an vet, and he's been successfully existing with his daughter in the woods, and off the grid. In these early scenes there is a wonderful delicacy in their relationship, brought vividly to life by sensitive performances from Ben Foster (Will) and Thomasin McKenzie (Tom). McKenzie in particular is a revelation. Like Jennifer Lawrence's performance in Winter's Bone, McKenzie demonstrates a maturity and depth of emotion which is rare for an actor so young and inexperienced. Foster as well is magnificent; so understated and nuanced. He gives so little away, but tells you so much. Almost everything about their interaction and relationship is unspoken. There is a rhythmic, almost dance-like choreography to the way they interact and communicate. It's a testament to Granik's writing and direction that we connect and build a deep bond with these characters and their world and life choices so quickly and so easily. Granik throws us into their lives, we experience them living, cooking, sleeping, hunting and running through drills in the event they are discovered. But hanging over their idyllic existence is a growing tension. Stocks are running low and they are forced to venture into civilization. But civilization is also encroaching on them. Soon they are discovered and their lives turned upside down.
Separated from each other, they are assessed by social services. If there film was going to trip up on its premise and ideas it would have been here. You watch, waiting for a scene that feels heavy-handed or cliched. But it never arrives. Instead the film lays out the first of its many challenging and moving questions. Are Will and Tom better in the woods, alone, together, or better being assimilated into the modern world? And is the modern world a good place to be assimilated into? From here the lives of Tom and Will and their reactions to the world around them begin to splinter. Will is clearly suffering from post traumatic stress, but is this, and the decisions its drives good or bad for Tom? Being a teenager, and extremely intelligent, Tom is much more capable of adapting, and the allure of the civilization could be too strong to resist.
From this point on I felt on the verge of crying. You want this loving father and daughter to be together. They are clearly good for each other and better together than apart. Will is a great father and Tom is a wonderful daughter. The love and trust between so strong. But once discovered something comes between them. A difference between them is revealed, and once unveiled it can never go away. As Tom says, "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me". It's a heartbreaking moment, but one both characters face resolutely. It speaks to the bond between them. The respect and honesty they share.
As Will struggles to adjust to their new surroundings, Tom begins to thrive. She's alert, inquisitive and interested in the world around her. New possibilities and horizons open up. The contrast is brilliantly realised through both Foster and McKenzie's performances but also through the choice of situations and scenarios Will and Tom find themselves in. The moments carry more power for their sympathetic and kind portrayal of the people who come into Will and Tom's lives. A generous homeowner and employer, local religious figures and social services. They are all rounded, good people. But with them come responsibilities and the demand to acclimatise to this new world.
As the characters struggle with their new surroundings, so did I struggle to find firm ground on which to rest my thoughts. Decisions made by Tom and Will, which from their perspective seem in the best interest of each other, to the audience appear to be sending the characters toward catastrophe. The film begins to feel as though its falling into tragedy. That having made decisions in the hope of restoring their idyllic equilibrium they have also made decisions from which their is no return. The connection with the characters so rich by this point that scenes take on a tension usually reserved for thrillers.
I don't think words are sufficient, certainly the few hundred written above, don't capture the brilliance of Leave No Trace. Tomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster give performances that connect with you in such a deep way as to make you feel you've known them all your lives. The love, and bond, between them is so strong, and so palpable that you can't help but feel a wrench when their story comes to a bittersweet ending. It's a beautiful story about a father and daughter. But one which has overtones of a bigger story, one about human nature, america and the effects of war on those who return, and how those experiences reverberate onto those they love. But none of these themes or ideas are heavy-handed. Leave No Trace is one of the most moving, poignant, beautiful and essential films of recent years.