Leave No Trace (2018)
Director: Debra Granik
Writer: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini; My Abandonment by Peter Rock
Cinematographer: Michael McDonough
Producer: Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, and Anne Rosellini
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone (2010) since it came out; remembering little beyond Jennifer Lawrence being introduced into the world and that it shot someday for night exteriors that didn’t look awful. I was surprised to see she hasn’t made a narrative film since, only coming out with the war documentary Stray Dogs (2014).
Captain Fantastic was my favorite film from 2016, though I hadn't seen until well into the next year due to its cover looking like a Wes Anderson knock off and it’s title sounding like a superhero movie. Instead, for those who haven’t seen it, it's a brilliant and profound film about a man who raised his children deep in the woods of Washington; providing them with a progressive view of the world, mostly inspired by Noam Chomsky and his philosophy. What worked so well about the film was its abandonment of quirky irony. It showed intelligent characters making rational choices within an otherwise extraordinary situation; adding just enough humor and heart to pull people into the ideas who would otherwise have no interest or care. Leave No Trace embraces a similar plot.
Ben Foster plays military veteran Will who’s struggling with severe PTSD, living in the woods where he cares for his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two have half a tent set up in the Portland Woods, cooking fresh mushrooms over the fire until it rains and they're forced to use the propane tank stove. They buy the little supplies they have via Will visiting the Veterans Association, getting some Rx psychotropic drugs, then hawking them in a nearby park where other homeless veterans live. They go to the grocery store, buy the bare essentials, and then return back to the woods.
Park Rangers soon discover the pair, bringing along a social worker who takes in Tom while Will is tested for any psychological disorders. Foster took on the part at a perfect time in his career; as for someone whose other characters are often volatile time bombs, I kept expecting Will’s calm demeanor to snap loose and discharge a torrent of anger. Instead, he remains calm, too smart to make that type of mistake.
Tom and Will are placed in a nice, though under furnished trailer home on the property of a wealthy tree farmer, Mr. Walters (Jeff Kober). While Will wants to work in the stables, Mr. Walters says that Will has to work his way into a job like that, as right now he needs the trees packed. Will begins and Tom explores the community, coming across a farmer around her age and his bunny rabbit. Later he invites her to 4H where she meets more kids her age from the community; along with a way of taking what she knew about modest living and share it with potential friends.
Will grows tired of the situation; resenting that he has to eat another man’s food, live in another man's place, use things he doesn’t own, and do a menial job that’s the same task day after day. While we never get any reason and philosophy behind the action it’s clear there’s something comparable to Captain Fantastic; not stealing the idea so much exploring similar territory. Will is returning from a war which has deeply affected his mental state, and the classic relief of wife, house, kid, and buying a bunch of stuff just won’t provide the answer to what he requires.
He leaves the tree farm, not even asking Tom what she wants to do and she trails along, devastated that she has to leave a place that was starting to feel like home. By now, Will has no idea where he wants to go, catching a ride up North where they’re dropped off in the middle of the upstate Washington woods as the temperature approaches freezing. Tom’s boots are soaked and her feet are on the verge of getting frostbite. Soon they find a cabin, but with no food left, Will heads out, not returning for days, until Tom goes to look for him, finding him unconscious at the bottom of a hill; his leg broken.
Will finds some help, ending up at an idyllic trailer park community, full of loving and empathetic people who help Will recover. The hippie people are likely on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Will and yet we see that they too have a culture and bond they hope to retain; not wanting Will to attract any trouble. Tom falls in love with the place, not wanting to leave, which of course, once healed, is the first thing Will wants to do.
Writing this, the film is a combination of The Road (2009), Into the Wild (2007), and Captain Fantastic (2016); melding man’s need to be free with the bond between a daughter and father who’re always on the move in search of a peace he cannot find. Discussing the plot, I’m having the strange experience of liking the story more than the movie. Without the substance of the others, there’s a slowness to it all, recovering during the last third when they reach the trailer community. I was also left unsure of how Will retained custody of Tom, or how long it’s been going on for. I believe I heard something about a mom passing away, but I kept wondering how that event led to them being homeless. Then again, maybe it was the final factor and they’ve only been homeless for a bit and it’s all brand new rather than long term. It’s a film that almost demands seeing it with another person; to bounce off ideas and see what a conversation can lead to.
BELOW: We'd go on to see Thomasin MacKenzie knock it out of the park in 2020's JoJo Rabbit
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