An absence of dialogue, an expanse of beautiful outdoor locations, a minimal budget and two actors pulling out every stop to give performances of a lifetime. We are, of course, talking about the latest feature from Debra Granik – Leave No Trace – a film which crept into cinemas a few months ago and has not left the screens or our minds since.
I was lucky enough to see it this week in the cinema, and I’m glad I finally did. Leave No Trace is not a film which needs to be seen on a big screen, but there is something about the hushed atmosphere of a darkened room that meshes so well with the way in which it’s protagonists, Will and Tom, live out their lives.
Ben Foster is Will, a deeply troubled man who has taken to living ‘outside’ of society with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two make camp in a National Park in Portland, venturing into the city only when supplies run low. Will makes the small amount of money they need by selling medicines to other homeless people in the park – others who are veterans like himself. They survive in near silence, Will training Tom in camouflaging to prevent them being found, planting their own food and sleeping in a single tent hidden by oversized green ferns.
Their lives in the park come to a swift end when a jogger notices Tom. Soon, social workers and police are sent to find the two and they are taken away to be questioned. Tom’s age is never specified and whilst swaddled in large coats, scarves and with a lack of nutrition, she could be anywhere between 11 and 16. On questioning her, Tom is advanced for her age, but she is told that she should be enrolled in high school as soon as possible. Will’s own questioning reveals a deep depression when he cannot answer questions about hope for the future, or whether he often has troubling and disturbing thoughts. From here, the two embark on a journey to try and adapt into new lives – first in a small cabin on farm which grows and sells Christmas trees.
Tom quickly becomes immersed in their new lives – making a new friend and learning how to present bunny rabbits with the local Future Farmers of America Group, one of the happiest moments within the film. Tom’s natural curiosity and interest in animals is stirred but whilst she is settling into this new environment, Will is uneasy. He needs to move on. Leave No Trace follows this pattern throughout – Tom moulding herself to suit any situation she finds herself in, Will unable to stand still.
Leave No Trace is, in many ways, about the nature of a parent-child relationship. What is the primary job of a parent? To protect, to shelter and to nurture your child? It’s easy to see Will as having done all of these, despite not providing any of them. He is categorically a bad father, but he also nurtures Tom’s education, provides her with his own kind of shelter and protects her from a society that he believes is corrupt.
There’s an anxiety present within Leave No Trace about Will’s misplaced rage, and when he questions Tom about the jogger who spotted her in the woods, there’s a moment when it seems Will is going to become aggressive towards Tom. This never happens. Even in his darkest moments, Will is not an outwardly violent man. His actions, however, do have an indirectly violent consequence for Tom – his decision to go on the run again leads her to the brink of death when the two of them get hopelessly lost in the woodland. Will is so desperate to be his daughters protector, that he ends up becoming someone that she needs protecting from.
For Will, everything is backwards. It’s society that is the hostile environment. He has a deep mistrust of the world. Quite deliberately, everyone that Will and Tom meet on their journey reacts only with kindness and compassion. From the social workers, to the truck driver, to the community at the caravan park – every single person treats Will and Tom with warmth. This is directly contradictory to Will’s perception of the world and it is heavily implied that he knows this. PTSD is not that straight forward, knowing a truth doesn’t make it a truth and Will (for whatever reason) is unable to come to terms with this and make his peace.
Granik’s camera often returns to wide expansive shots of the two characters embedded within the landscape – a shot which returns again at the end of the film, cementing Will’s desire to blend in with his surroundings and simply disappear. The cinematography echoes the empathy that Granik urges us to feel for these characters – tight two shots and close up’s of Tom and Will’s faces convey the smallest emotion.
Though Leave No Trace is a very small story, focused solely on these two characters and their path in this world, it also seems to be talking about society at large. Everyone the pair meet have their own stories, are broken in their own ways. From the other homeless folks at the National Park, to the camping community in the forest – there is a sense that everyone is trying to do the best they can with what they have. Tom and Will are no different.