Leave No Trace
Dir: Debra Granik
It’s hard to believe that it has taken eight long years for director Debra Granik to produce another feature film, because after the fantastic Winter’s Bone I thought she’d have the pick of projects. I’m not sure why it has taken so long, she did make the documentary Stray Dog in-between, but I’m glad Leave No Trace is here. I’m also unsurprised that it is as good as it is. Maybe, like many a great director, we should expect quality over quantity from now on. I digress, Leave No Trace is a perfect example of simple but strong ingredients coming together to make the perfect story. The first great decision was to cast Ben Foster in the lead role. As soon as he was on board, he and Granik Granik worked together to remove around 40% of the dialogue to make the film have less exposition and to give it more realism. The second great decision was to cast Thomasin McKenzie as Ben’s daughter. The young actor is superb in what I would suggest is one of the best – if not the best - performance of 2018. The film tells the story of Will, an Iraq War veteran who is suffering from Post Trumatic Stress Disorder. Due to his situation, he lives with his 13-year-old daughter, Tom, in a public park outside Portland, Oregon. They live in almost total isolation, only entering town for occasional food and supplies. Will makes their money by selling his VA-issued painkillers to other veterans. After Tom is accidentally spotted in the woods by a jogger, officers arrest them and place them into social services. They are given food and a house on a tree farm in rural Oregon, on the condition that Will abides by the rules of the home owner and social services. Will begrudgingly begins to work on the settlement packaging pine trees, while Tom begins school and interacts with local kids her age in a club. Will feels oppressed by others' presence and tells Tom they are returning to the woods. She follows him but with reluctance. Will and Tom catch a ride north with a long-haul trucker, who lets them out, at Will's direction, on the edge of trackless woods. They hike in a direction Will expects to lead to an unoccupied cabin, but cold and darkness force them to build a makeshift tent to survive the night. The next day, they find an abandoned cabin and move in. Will leaves to find food but does not return for some time. Tom walks out to look for him, eventually finding him unconscious at the bottom of a hill, presumably from a slip and fall. She gets help from some locals passing by, who take them back to their mobile home community. One of them suggests taking Will to a hospital, but Tom, knowing that going to a hospital could mean going back into social services, refuses. A local woman calls a friend of hers, a former Army medic (and fellow PTSD sufferer), who gets Will on the road to recovery. He also lends Will his own therapy dog to ease his mental adjustment to society. Will and Tom stay in the community for some time while Will’s injuries heal. Tom likes this new home, and hopes that she and her father can stay there permanently. Will, however, continues to feel overwhelmed by social interaction and insists that they leave again. Tom protests this, telling him "the same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me". When Will leaves anyway, Tom says that she can not go with him this time, and needs to try to live a normal life. They tearfully hug and part ways. It is both a happy and a sad ending, but also neither. It’s a real slice of life. Along their journey certain big issues are explored but the film is never judgmental and is always subtle. There is comment on the problem of homelessness, particularly within the ex-services. Ex-military are let down in nearly every country, generally by governments, but the film does show the help they receive from charities. PTSD is however, still something that is handled poorly, due to a lack of understanding and a lack of research funding. Will selling his drugs says a lot about the system, it’s a terrible way of making money but a necessity, also suggesting that the drugs don’t work for the reason they are prescribed. I can understand why local authorities can’t have people living in public land but simply moving them on and demolishing their homes isn’t enough. Will and Tom do receive help however and no one is painted as a bad guy, but the system doesn’t really work for anyone. Prevention is the word unspoken. The other word is isolation. The pair chose isolation in many respects but all meanings of the word are explored, particularly in their relationship with each other. The last scene might seem like an abandonment but the point is Tom lets her father go, every relationship is based on a mutual understanding and respect. True love is doing what is best for the other person, no matter how hard and unnatural it might seem. I’m pretty sure the word is never uttered, but this film really is about the love between a father and his daughter. It’s rather sombre at times, never over-dramatised but still full of raw emotion. The direction is also perfect, with great big open shots that are met with intimate moments when needed. It looks stunning throughout. What I liked most was how easy it was to understand the characters, even thought I have nothing in common with them. The story doesn’t preach and is never patronising. It is the only example of an ending that I think I should hate – and I sort of do and then I don’t – but is brilliant. It is the best conclusion for the story, even though every part of your brain is telling you otherwise. I think it’s a stunning piece of work, a future classic for sure.