Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace will break your damn heart, and it’s only fair mentioning such up front. It’s another quiet indie about a somber subject – not to mention it’s being based on a novel – and the intended slightness of its material – perhaps even its source material, as well – should in theory make its slower, more patient approach an occasional weak link supporting it, and yet there’s something more to it than most of its familiar genre counterparts. It is the sort of story which less talented directors and writers cannot help but sensationalize if that means an easier route to audience visibility and thus increased Oscar odds, but especially when it comes to individuals living on the edge of the grid, Granik thinks differently.
It’s one thing watching a film like 10 Cloverfield Lane and accepting its positioning John Goodman’s paranoid survivalist Howard as the antagonist not just because of his authoritarian, inhuman treatment of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle and John Gallagher Jr.’s Emmett, but also because we know so little about his character that even empathy becomes the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater. Hell, we can even smarmily point the finger at modern militias throughout the country, stockpiling weapons and supplies awaiting a supposedly impending governmental and societal collapse. People like them, who ostracize themselves from society or who feel like the world bestowed that curse upon them, just happen to be Granik’s bread and butter.
Naturally then, her treatment of Ben Foster’s Will, a veteran and father suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the material behind Leave No Trace as a whole is as graceful and grounded as her previous fictional works. We aren’t given much insight into him aside from faint references to his past and how it might inform his outlook and inability to connect, but never once does Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini’s script momentarily reduce his character and their admirably subtle efforts to a stock outburst or two for the sake of easy drama. All it takes is an emphasis on the finer details to quietly build a nuanced protagonist, rounding out their palpable authenticity in addition to the real-world issue(s) they ultimately symbolize.
But technically speaking, he isn’t the narrative’s primary focus, and rather it’s Will’s daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) being the audience’s focal point that further contextualizes him as a broken, but sympathetic man – not to take away from Foster’s remarkably withdrawn portrayal or mitigate the role McKenzie’s Tom plays. Through her, we not only see the dynamic of a loving, but should-be incongruous relationship with her father based upon how she progressively sees him, but also a hopeful view of humanity extended beyond the reaches of civilization touching self-sufficient rural souls more inept productions would rather stereotype or prop up as superficial signifiers of the filmmakers’ genuine connection to ‘the common man.’ It’s a deceptively tough part, considering she’s the one mostly carrying this broadly played premise, but McKenzie absolutely nails it.
Sometimes all you need is finely executed drama to achieve something special, and there’s no doubt the partnership Foster and McKenzie share as the father and daughter against the world plays a large part in maintaining something simply exquisite. Their characters and relationship, even McKenzie’s, may not be the most densely layered, but it’s the strength of their craft and Granik and Rosellini’s joint scriptural effort giving the appearance of detailed nuance from scene to scene, loudly stating through comparatively silent actions and expressions how their relationship evolves from scene to scene. And who’s to say it isn’t truly there, at least hiding in relatively plain sight?
Throughout the film’s seemingly aimless wander from the wilderness to the urban jungle and back, while Granik and Rosellini build upon themes of emotional separation intertwined with physical distance, coming of age and connection through community, cinematographer Michael McDonagh simultaneously morphs the initially familiar into the unknown, establishing a divide that transfers from Tom’s view of society to her view of her father. Like the narrative’s own simplicity, his work and Granik’s assured direction make effective use out of simple shots and staging to express this sudden barrier, meanwhile the confluence of set and lighting design, for instance, may initially highlight nature as a source of peace, though later scenes turn this comfort against them to advance certain undercurrents. Where it inevitably leads may not be a mystery for some, but it’s no less of a heart-wrenching gut punch.
It’s just one of those films where I wish I had more to say to communicate the depth of its drama and the irrevocable pain that comes with it, but fortunately, Leave No Trace is additionally the sort of cinematic success that can fill in the blanks where words of immediate criticism and/or reverence aren’t enough. Such can be said of Winter’s Bone, and eight years later, Granik hasn’t missed a beat. There’s goodness in humanity, Foster tells his Hollywood Reporter interviewer at Sundance, and if it takes eight years to meaningfully engage with a certain part of humanity – even though Granik more than likely didn’t need that long, anyway – then that’s what it takes.