‘Leave No Trace’ A Work of Sheer Mastery (FILM REVIEW)


Modern life and all its trappings has a way of inspiring a desire to leave it all behind, to retreat into the wilderness in search of something simpler. From the confined space of your cubicle and the soul sucking glow of your computer screen the idea of saying fuck it all and retreating into the woods sounds just lovely. Never mind that most of us wouldn’t last a week.

Truth is, it takes a certain kind of person to endure the hardships of a life off grid. And a lot of the times, the people who can have endured some sort of trauma, one that makes them want to turn their back on society and leave all the comforts of modernity behind.

Leave No Trace explores this mindset, providing us with a nuanced look at the harsh realities of a life in the wild. Co-Writer/director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) has crafted a stunning, intimate character study that reveals the emotional truths of an off-grid existence, creating one of the best films of the year so far.

Based on the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Leave No Trace follows the father daughter pair of Will and Tom (Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcout McKenzie) as they try to eke out their existence in the wild forests outside Portland. Away from the hustle and bustle of society they can, as Will puts it, “think their own thoughts” as they scavenge for existence from their illegal camp. When the pair are caught by park rangers, they’re forced to try and adapt to the kind of life they left behind.

The film explores the suffering of PTSD via Will, a former soldier who can no longer hack it in the real world. His trauma is left unspoken; we have no real idea what he experienced, but Foster plays the role in a way that makes Will’s anguish come alive. His eyes carry the weight of sadness, suggesting a deep history that Granik masterfully leaves unspoken.

This stands in stark contrast to his daughter, played brilliantly by McKenzie. Tom is a bright eyed adolescent torn between worlds—the off grid life she’s been forced into by her father, and the more normal existence thrust on her by the powers that be. Here is the crux of Leave No Trace. Will Tom choose to continue following her father on his constant run from society, or will she fight to experience something more normal? For all the talk of thinking their own thoughts, whose thoughts will Tom ultimate decide to think?

Granik, for the most part, allows her themes and conflicts to unfold internally, not giving them an external reality until late in the film. This technique allows the audience a kind of detachment from the subject, fully separating us from the characters. Rightly so. Their experiences are so far removed from what most of us have experienced that we simply can’t relate to them on anything but the basest of commonality. As it goes on, however, we find ourselves pulling for Tom, hoping to welcome her into society, even if that means leaving her father behind.

It’s truly and stunning and emotional work of cinema. While it might move too slow for some audiences, those who don’t mind a more deliberate pace will be enthralled by the humanity of Leave No Trace. It’s a film worth seeking out and contemplating, forcing us to consider what aspects of modern society we stand, and what we could stand to live without. It’s a work of mastery, no matter what you decide, that reminds us all of the varieties of the human experience.

Leave No Trace is now playing in select theaters.

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