LEAVE NO TRACE has a very misleading title for a film that will linger long after viewing. Debra Granik’s film is a striking one of delicately balanced contrasts: understated yet emotive; contrasting yet coherent; personal yet topical.
Ben Foster plays army veteran Will, living off the grid in a forested public park with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Their permanent existence here seems well-drilled: Tom reads books, they practice evading the authorities, build fires like pros, and venture into town only to shop and to pick up Will’s prescription opioids to sell on. When they are found, however, this routine comes to a halt and the authorities capture them to attempt settling them back into society.
The script is very willing to give the visuals pride of place. Dialogue in the opening scenes is sparse, but works in harmony with Granik‘s filmmaking. Once the film is removed from the verdant pastures of the public park, the harsher interiors perfectly complement the sterile bureaucracy – played for bittersweet laughs – in which Will and Tom find themselves.
The tone of the script is reflected in the visuals and audio editing choices. The colour palette when the pair are in dire straits late in the film is notably more cold than the lush opening, with its long single take belonging to a different place in the character arcs. The tranquil outdoors is heavily contrasted with the mechanical, discordant clanking of the city. Helicopters buzz oppressively in the city and near the family’s new ‘homes’. The latter sounds also evoke Ben’s military trauma, perhaps PTSD, that is implied but never made explicit.
“…a striking film of delicately balanced contrasts: understated yet emotive; contrasting yet coherent; personal yet topical.”
As the story develops into that of low-key capture-and-escape, the diverging characters of father and daughter are handled masterfully by Foster and McKenzie. The intensity Foster has brought to wide-ranging roles is bound up fantastically into Will, a quieter role than Lance Armstrong or Tanner Howard of HELL OR HIGH WATER. Towing an excellent line between sympathetic and frustrating, there are no theatrical mutterings of ‘the horror’ to be found here.
McKenzie has more of a trajectory to chart with her character, and her varying interactions with Foster, other adults and teenagers, and authority figures all come across as veritable without feeling like a growing and cohesive whole. Without such a strong performance from her, the dynamic – and film – would suffer.
The split that can be felt coming is a gradual cleaving apart aided by the visuals and script, and not emotive monologuing. The film perhaps sags shortly before the closing scenes, with the protagonists embarking upon a second effort at settling into a ‘normal’ life, and this portion feels drawn-out. Not so much INTO THE WILD as into the trailer park. However, given the plot trajectory it could be argued this allows LEAVE NO TRACE to further develop its themes and payoffs: the feeling of resigned inevitability makes the finale all the more poignant.
“…the feeling of resigned inevitability makes the finale all the more poignant.”
The relationship charted is simply presented, allowing the complexities and themes to be a bass note on the tune being played. Problems surrounding the portrayal of rural and small-town America, USA care for army veterans, and the suitability of bureaucratic support structures are all suggested without firing up the entire orchestra.
LEAVE NO TRACE should be commended for managing to balance the personal story of its characters with weighty and topical themes. Script, direction, and acting all work together to deliver a story that clearly communicates what is at stake for its characters and what they represent with a rare subtle intelligence.