As a character in the human narrative, the wilderness has played many roles over the eons, from progenitor to antagonist to victim to healer. It’s ever-ready to serve as the handiest of metaphors for the unconscious. Literature leans on it liberally to construct conflict, both internal and external, and to test the mettle of heroes. For every shipwreck survivor desperately trying to keep body and soul together while dreaming of rescue, you’ll find a hermit deliberately seeking solace and transcendence in solitude in some cave or atop some pillar.
The title of Debra Granik’s newest film, Leave No Trace, is misleading in its suggestion that we’re about to see a documentary about zero-impact camping. Its protagonists, troubled war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), certainly have made a science of covering their tracks in the forests of the Northwest; but it’s motivated more by fear of their fellow humans than by a commitment to environmental ethics.
Over her career, in films such as Down to the Bone, Winter’s Bone and Stray Dog, Granik has made a specialty of inviting the viewer into the psyches of people who live on the fringes of modern society. With a screenplay co-written with Granik’s frequent collaborator Anne Rosellini, Leave No Trace is based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, inspired by a true story of a father and daughter discovered to have been living off the land for four years in a park outside Portland, Oregon. In it we are afforded glimpses of a subculture of vets whose PTSD makes them marginally employable, who find each other out and offer mutual support while living mostly off the grid, voluntarily out of reach of the well-intentioned government safety-net systems that are supposed to be offering them help.
We never find out what war it was that never stops exploding inside Will’s head; we just see him wake with a violent start from a nightmare into a hypervigilant stance, or cower and cover his head anytime a helicopter passes over their wooded hideaway. We don’t hear what experience it was that made him so averse to being asked questions; we simply see him responding, when Tom asks him his favorite color, with “What’s your favorite color?” A battery of psychological-profile questions administered by a social-service agency leaves him nearly catatonic.
This is a character for whom maintaining opacity is a matter of survival, which only serves to heighten the brilliance of Foster’s nuanced portrayal of a very demanding role. It’s in his interactions with Tom, and in one short scene with a horse, that we are allowed access to the tender depths of Will’s wounded heart. Illuminating the companionable, mostly nonverbal bond between father and daughter constitutes about two-thirds of this tale, but you’ll never be left wondering when something is going to happen. Will sees his peril in being forced to live around other people; Tom gradually discovers that hers lies in being isolated from the community she craves by her father’s obsessive need for invisibility – to leave no trace, wherever he goes.
While Will’s inner turmoil is the driver of this story, Tom is the one who is coming of age, who is capable of growth and change; so in the end, the audience’s loyalty must lie with her. Fortunately, McKenzie is skilled and expressive enough to hold up her end of the relationship splendidly. Granik has been noted for her knack in discovering incredible, hitherto-unknown actresses (Vera Farmiga, Jennifer Lawrence) and setting them on the path to Oscar nomination, and it looks like this gifted young New Zealander will be the next to burst out of the gate.
The rest of the cast is very strong as well, despite having small allocations of screentime. Dale Dickey, looking like Carrie Fischer might have after a decade or two of living mostly on a motorcycle, makes an especially zesty impression as a compassionate outsider who becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Tom. As for that other major character, the wilderness: It’s exquisitely rendered through Michael McDonough’s cinematography, delicately beautiful and nurturing one moment, harsh, muddy and bone-chilling the next.
Leave No Trace won’t necessarily entice you to go camping in the Pacific Northwest. Nor does it offer any particularly encouraging answers about what might be done on a societal level for the traumatized among us, short of not sending any more of them off to war. Unlike other recent films about people surviving in the wild that might be held up for comparison – Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Moonrise Kingdom – the story is somber, rarely leavened by comedy. But it will, as the youngsters like to say on social media these days, give you all the feels.