“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
“Winter’s Bone” made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence eight years ago, but didn’t do much for its writer/director, Debra Granik. Hollywood still has more of a place for women in front of the camera than behind. After a couple of documentary projects, Granik is back with another fine dramatic feature set in the lonesome backwoods populated by America’s castoffs.
“Leave No Trace” stars Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as Will and Tom, father and daughter living in complete isolation in a thick forest. At first we think they might be camping, and Will is passing along his skills as a consummate outdoorsman. They pick mushrooms, start fires from nothing, collect rainwater, etc. It seems peaceful and natural.
But clues soon appear to suggest this is not a temporary excursion.
Will shows the girl, who’s about 13 or 14, how to follow tracks… but also how to cover their own. They conduct drills in elusion and hiding. On their rare trips into town (Portland, Ore.), Will trades the medicine he receives from the hospital for cash from homeless veterans squatting on the edge of the forest.
This is a very still, observant film. Little is explicitly stated, as we’re left to watch and gather signs. Foster, one of the finest character actors in movies today, presents us with a man who is hiding behind walls of his own creation, yet the turmoil and anxiety show through.
Is he a military veteran suffering from PTSD? Will is a person who seems very capable and confident in his own skills, yet there’s a deer-like timidity to the man. His fight-or-flight instincts are honed to an edge, and we sense that he chooses the latter in order to avoid the former.
For her part, Tom is a smart, caring girl who genuinely enjoys being with her father. Yet she is bound to become curious about the greater world beyond, and this will take the form of drawing her away from him.
There is a great and deep love between the two. Their only purpose in life seems to be to stay together.
“We can think our own thoughts,” they say, as close to a creed as they have.
Events transpire to draw them out of their seclusion. Dana Millican plays a social worker who works to preserve this tiny little family, yet nudge them toward society. Jeff Kober plays the owner of a Christmas tree farm where they come to stay for a while. He is helpful and generous, yet there is an unspoken impetus to his presence that requires deference, such as attending services at his church.
Will is not apparently anti-religious; it’s just one of many things that he has laid aside.
Dale Dickey, with that beautiful, rough face that seems like it’s hewn from raw wood, turns up as the manager of an RV park where Will and Tom live for a time. The mercurial denizens are hunters, hippies, shell-shocked soldiers and others who have chosen to recede from the world, much like Will but not to his extreme. While Tom is drawn toward this gentle space, it’s clear that Will is satisfied with a community of just two.
We know where all this is heading, but it doesn’t make the fork in the road any less hard to take. Granik, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Peter Rock, turns her camera’s eye on these fragile, damaged folks and reveals them for who they are without judgment.
“Leave No Trace” is a heartfelt road picture in which the road is both the lure and the prison.