D: Debra Granik / 109m
Cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Isaiah Stone, David Pittman
In the forest outside Portland, Oregon, an Army veteran suffering from PTSD, Will (Foster), and his teenage daughter, Tom (McKenzie), live together in a makeshift encampment. Only venturing into the city to pick up supplies, the pair do their best to ensure they pass unnoticed. But when Tom is seen by a jogger, their peaceful existence is brought to an end. The authorities raid their camp, and they’re apprehended; as they learn, it’s not illegal to live in the forest per se, but it is when the forest is part of a state park. Placed with a farmer (Kober), Will remains uncomfortable being surrounded by four walls, while Tom begins to explore a wider world than the one she’s used to. It isn’t long before Will tells Tom they’re leaving, and they head off into the Oregon wilderness. It isn’t long before they’re lost, and in less than hospitable conditions, a situation that reinforces Tom’s awareness that the life they’ve been living isn’t the same one she wants to continue with…
Writer/director Granik’s follow up to Winter’s Bone (2010) (and only her third feature over all), Leave No Trace is a low-key experience, full of emotional and dramatic ellipses, and yet with a depth and a clarity of expression that seems at odds with the stripped back nature of the material. Adapted from the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace explores the ways in which a mutually dependent relationship inevitably has to fracture when it’s exposed to outside influences. It’s also a deeply sincere look at how longing and individual need can set people in such a relationship on vastly different courses in life, and yet still be the best thing for both of them. Will is always unlikely to accept the “normal” life he and Tom are thrust into, while it’s equally likely that Tom will take to it with a greater appetite. But though all this is a given, it’s the quality of Granik and co-scripter Anne Rossellini’s screenplay that all this plays out with a great deal of compassion and understanding for both characters’ aspirations and needs. There’s not one false note to be found in the way that Will and Tom behave, or in the way that they interact with their surroundings, be it the forest or their temporary home on the farm.
The movie has a beautiful visual aesthetic too, the lush green vegetation of the forest feeling visceral and alive before giving way to the compromised homogeneity of the city, and then enveloping us again towards the end, wrapping Will and Tom (and the viewer) in a leafy embrace that’s heartening and threatening and exciting and reassuring all at the same time. Michael McDonough’s cinematography deftly switches from being an immersive, magnificent experience during its forest scenes to that of an impartial observer of Will and Tom’s emotional struggles, and back again with such authority that it’s breathtaking. Granik has also seen fit to employ a soundtrack that comprises much of the natural soundscape as its backdrop, adding to our sense of the time and place(s) that Will and Tom inhabit. Will and Tom are played to perfection by Foster and McKenzie, with Foster’s internalised, haunted performance a career best that’s matched – exceeded perhaps – by McKenzie’s beautifully nuanced portrayal of Tom. Their scenes together never feel strained or unconvincing, and Granik’s measured yet intuitive direction teases out every unspoken thought or feeling with a clarity that is unlikely to have been more impactful if they’d been uttered out loud.
Rating: 9/10 – tremendously moving and visually striking, Leave No Trace is a strong contender for Movie of the Year and easily one of the most impressive movies of the last few years; with faultless performances, inspired direction, a deceptively impassioned screenplay, and an abiding sense of hope for both its central characters, this is richly rewarding and an absolute must-see.