Movie review: Leave No Trace

(image via IMP Awards)


There is very little that is subtle about our current digital age.

Though I am largely a fan, it is all too often the case that the louder, the more bombastic, the more obvious a story, the more it is given credence or is seen as the true teller of a particular tale.

While loud stories well told can be fearsomely good – witness Mission: Impossible – Fallout – there is amazing, oft-forgotten power in narratives that unfurl themselves at an unhurried pace, that recognise there is a commanding presence in simply placing one artfully-constructed, well-wrought scene after another and taking us to places that may look understated but which send a seismic, and much-welcome, shock through our souls.

Leave No Trace is one such film, written (with Anne Rosellini) and directed by Debra Granik and based on My Abandonment by Peter Rock, and replete with a quiet patience that knows there is something compelling about letting people with real stories tell their tale.

In fact, so patient is the film that it spends much of its opening scene simply showing the father and daughter at the heart its deeply-affecting story, Iraq War veteran Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) respectively, collecting food, starting a fire and checking their shelter in the small patch of wild forest just outside of Portland they call home.

It’s so idyllic and bucolic that you could be forgiven for thinking that the film will play out as some contented rustic depiction of life lived happily outside the mainstream, but the grim reality is, for Will at least, who has PTSD, is that nature and an almost near-absence of people (his daughter excepted, obviously) is the only salve for the traumatic wounds that have long lacerated his soul.

Eschewing the usual cocktail of drugs that some veterans use to cope with their vividly-scarring memories, Will finds peace in living sustainably off the land, in teaching his smart, empathetic daughter everything she needs to know (it later emerges she is well ahead of her contemporaries) and in staying well out of the rat race he finds so confiningly unbearable.



There is a great beauty and solitude to the life Will and Tom have carved out for themselves, one in which they seem in relatively perfect harmony, save for Tom’s occasional, and honestly, minor acts of rebellion such as finding (and hiding after her dad has walked off) some jewellery on a track that she wants to keep but which Will instructs be left for their return journey, just in case its owner comes back looking for it.

But underlying this seemingly tranquil life is Will’s restlessness, his nightmares which he cannot hide from Tom since they share the same tent and a rootless sense of impermanence that Tom doesn’t question since it’s all she’s ever know, but which she begins to notice is deficient in a number of ways that affect her when a tip off from a forest user leads social services to take Will and Tom back into a society neither is initially even remotely comfortable inhabiting.

While Will ostensibly goes along with the new isolated house where he finds work thanks to the compassion of Christmas tree Mr Walters (Jeff Kober) and the many bureaucratic demands of their case worker – to be fair Jean (Dana Millican) is a caring, compassionate person who does her best to help Will and Tom but she’s is inevitably part of a complex system that Will finds overwhelming and undealable with – he is chafing at the bit to get away and find somewhere new to lose himself.

The problem is that wherever he goes, his trauma goes with him, and when father and daughter finally end up at a trailer park in the woods of Washington state, peopled by all kinds of flotsam and jetsam from society, he is still unable to settle, despite the compassionate oversight of Dale (Dale Dickey).

He wants to move on again but Tom, all too aware that what is wrong with her father is not wrong with her, something her father belatedly and tearfully acknowledges in one of the most moving scenes I have ever seen on film, and happy in a world where she friends and a sense of purpose is reluctant to leave.

It leaves Tom and Will at a crossroads that to Granik’s credit is not resolved with any kind of euphorically, Road to Damascus moment.



PTSD after all is a complex condition, one which is not easily resolved, if it is resolved at all, ending far often than it should in suicide, and Granik wisely chooses not to simplify what is a harrowing way in which to relate to the world, her decision providing an evocative ending to a film which never offers simplistic answers.

Heart and soul of this immensely-touching, and exquisitely-nuanced film is the relationship between Will and Tom, with her presence in his life the one thing besides the natural environment that, you suspect, keeps Will alive and engaged with the world around in, limited though it is.

It anchors Leave No Trace all the way through, the quiet companionship of this small family providing a wealth of insight into not only PTSD but what happens to anyone on the margins of society, especially one like America where social welfare safety nets are not as expansive as those in more liberal Western democracies.

Will has chosen to live on the fringes, his only option he thinks to stay alive and functioning, but Tom soon realises, once other options are made available to her, that she has neither the need nor the desire to live the same way.

Drawing on the quiet majesty of the forests of Oregon and Washington state and a willingness to let silence linger and people act without words or explanation, Leave No Trace is a masterful piece of cinema, driven by mesmeringly good performances, full to the brim with power and substance and evident compassion and truthful realism, but never seized by the need to shout its story from the rooftops.

In so doing, it mirrors the way life often is, with even major lifechanging events playing in the most undemonstrative, show-stopping kinds of ways and trauma taking its toll in a thousand, small cuts, something the shouty, yell-y modern age fails to take into account to its great cost, missing out on profoundly-moving stories such as this along the way.



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