A tale of a father and daughter living off the grid in the forests of the Pacific north-west of the US proves the perfect material for Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik. Renowned for her empathetic portrayal of marginalised outsiders, Granik here conjures a low-key drama about cultural and generational divides that is alternately gripping and melancholic, but always shot through with the unmistakable ring of truth. The result is work of overwhelming, understated power that quite simply took my breath away.
We open in verdant nature, in the secretive midst of a vast public park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Here, reclusive veteran Will (Ben Foster, typically intense) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live in camouflaged encampments, moving regularly to evade detection. Their existence is elemental; they make fire from the earth and gather water from the sky, and play survivalist games of hide-and-seek that speak volumes about Will’s military past. Occasionally, they venture into the city (as alien as the world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) where PTSD sufferer Will purchases essential supplies with money made from selling his prescription medication. But when their cover is blown, the pair are captured, interrogated, and forced to re-enter the modern world, with divisive results.
Adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment by Granik and regular co-writer/producer Anne Rosellini, Leave No Trace (which has its roots in a true story) unites several thematic strands that run throughout the director’s work. Having examined the lives of disenfranchised veterans in her 2014 documentary Stray Dog, Granik here cites several real-life accounts of post-combat trauma as “inspirational source materials”, alongside readings from Henry David Thoreau and the journals of Richard Proenneke. Yet crucially both Rock and Granik also acknowledge Shakespeare’s The Tempest as an archetypal template that offers an insight into the true heart of this quietly powerful film.
Whatever else it may be, Leave No Trace is a coming-of-age story in which Tom’s emerging identity is the real catalyst for change. The film opens and closes with images of a dewy spider’s web glistening in forest light, suggesting both escape and entrapment. When Tom tells her father “I’m growing”, his monosyllabic response (“I know”) economically suggests fear, resignation and denial. Like the leaky canvases they attempt to patch up with duct tape, it’s clear that this pair’s putatively Edenic world is coming apart long before the authorities arrive.
As the great outdoors gives way to the confined indoors, Will’s isolating instincts take on a vaguely messianic air. There’s an echo of Piper Laurie’s puritanical mother from Carrie in Will’s insistence that his daughter reject her new peers, while a shared glance at their moment of capture creepily reminded me of the 1981 religious cult drama Ticket to Heaven. Yet Granik, who seems to be an eternal optimist at heart, finds tenderness, generosity and hope amid crisis. In a story filled with the kindness of strangers, there is no bitterness in Tom’s dawning realisation that “what’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me”, only a heartbreaking sense of separation.
Brilliantly, all this is expressed not through explanatory verbiage but understated gesture. The film’s opening act boasts minimal dialogue (“Nice work”; “Thank you”), while talk of a mobile phone further down the line prompts Will to note significantly: “We always managed to communicate without all that.” In one particularly touching sequence, Tom finds a rabbit, which leads her into unexpected friendships characterised more by observation than conversation. Later, she bonds with a hive of bees, which seem to accept her as their benevolent queen.
Like the dialogue, Dickon Hinchliffe’s musical cues are beautifully sparse, consisting mostly of polytonal drones (rather than melodies), interspersed by song. Haunting renditions of O My Stars and Dark Holler (performed by Michael Hurley and Marisa Anderson) recall the electrifying strains of Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies from Winter’s Bone, location and atmosphere perfectly established through live music – a Granik trademark.
At the centre of it all is McKenzie, the rising New Zealand star (her credits include The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) who combines the astonishing technical skills of a young Jennifer Lawrence with the wide-eyed naturalism of David (“Dai”) Bradley in Kes. Watching Leave No Trace, we feel as though we are watching her grow up before our eyes; her pain, courage and compassion are tangible and real. It’s a pitch-perfect performance around which Granik builds her flawless, deeply affecting film.