Review: Leave No Trace6 August 2018
After eight long years, the genius that is Debra Granik returns with a feature film that is as beautiful a piece of unhurried filmmaking as Winter’s Bone was. Leave No Trace—an adaptation of the novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock—follows Will, an army veteran, and Tom, his thirteen year old daughter, who call home a little camp set-up made of tarps and other equipment in the wilderness of a nature reserve in Oregon.
Every now and again, when supplies run low, the duo wander into civilisation to first stop at a hospital where Will (played by Ben Foster) picks up his prescription of opioid painkillers only to sell them to a couple of guys living in the jungle with their own camp-like set up. Will and Tom (played by the brilliant newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie) then return home and continue their life in the stillness of Forest Park; they read books, play chess, share a tent and cook meals together, giving them some semblance of normality in such unusual circumstances. Will’s veteran background projects in the military style drills he teaches Tom to avoid the serenity of their home in the wilderness to be tarnished by authorities. Despite all the protocols, Tom mistakenly gets spotted by a hiker and soon after, they are picked up by the police. They are each subjected to psychiatric evaluations and ultimately put in a farmhouse for rehabilitation.
At this point, I thought I had the movie all figured out. Oh okay, it’s the part where they get used to “civilisation” and adjust to a normal suburban life in a little American county. The movie will then dive into his PTSD and answer questions about Tom’s missing mother and ultimately an exploration of how Will deals with the heavy consequences of war. As I smugly sat waiting for what I expected, Will tells Tom to pack up and they abruptly head back into the wilderness. The loud noises of machinery and callous church meetings proved too much for Will yet Tom grew more attached to the sense of community she found in the farmhouse. She found that sense of belonging in the rabbits at the rabbit training school when the duo was in the farmhouse and then the hive of honeybees at their next stop.
As they move from one location to the other, the growing difference between Will and Tom becomes more apparent. Will needs to continue moving away from people back into the eerie yet comforting silence of the forest, that’s the only way he knows to deal with PTSD. Tom, on the other hand, wants a different kind of home, one wrapped in a sense of community. This conflict is played out patiently and beautifully always in the presence of the tranquillity of the woods. The film plays out to be a coming of age moment for Tom where she sees everything outside of the world her father built for her and where she feels like she belongs. The mix of strong performances by the leads and the expert care cast over the screenwriting and the direction by Granik ultimately leaves a trace—an exceedingly beautiful one at that.