Leave No Trace

(Debra Granik, USA, 2018)


Will (Ben Foster), a psychologically fragile Iraq War veteran, lives in the woods of Oregon with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They are neither homeless nor criminal; they have simply chosen to live apart from society. Others like them secretly populate the area.


But when government rangers force these nature-dwellers out, Tom and Will must try to adapt to civilisation and community.


Leave No Trace is the third fiction feature by Debra Granik and, like Down to the Bone (2004) and Winter’s Bone (2010) before it, co-written with Anne Rosellini. It takes an observational, realist approach to an intriguing, unusual and marginal aspect of contemporary American life.


Granik here departs from the sometimes murky naturalism of her previous work and, with a more satisfying intensity and focus, creates a strong film that resonates with those of Kelly Reichardt in the context of contemporary USA independent cinema.


Its characters are not militant right-wing survivalists shooting guns in forests; they are ordinary, damaged people helping each other to cope, one day at a time.


By the same token, the social workers who intervene and help to relocate Will and Tom are benevolent and caring; but, all the same, to live in society means for Will to “eat their food, do their work” – to conform, thus crushing his freedom and his soul.


Rigorously eschewing any sensationalist possibilities (there is no sex or violence here, not even the hint of it), Leave No Trace ultimately zeroes in on a universal human drama: the bond between father and daughter (beautifully acted by the leads), which must ultimately arrive to the painful crossroad of separation. Tom wants to think and act for herself.


This move from social specificity to an almost mythic dimension – compare the earlier example of Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988) – could have easily taken a dramatically weak or politically reactionary turn, but Leave No Trace maintains its integrity of purpose and vision.

© Adrian Martin September 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search