Monday, July 23, 2018

Movie Review: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace **** / *****
Directed by: Debra Granik.
Written by: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini based on the novel by Peter Rock.
Starring: Thomasin Harourt McKenzie (Tom), Ben Foster (Will), Jeffery Rifflard (Vet at VA), Michael Draper (Runner), Derek John Drescher (Larry), Peter Simpson (Police Officer), Erik McGlothlin (K-9 Officer), Dana Millican (Jean), Alyssa Lynn (Valerie), Ryan Joiner (Tiffany), Michael J. Prosser (James), Jeff Kober (Mr. Walters), Spencer S. Hanley (Pastor), Tamera Westlake ( Devotional Dancer), Bob Werfelman (Bob), Isaiah Stone (Isaiah), Jacob Johnson (4H Coach), Art Hickman (Truck Driver), Derek Carmon (Detective), Zoƫ Dotson (Teen Girl Traveler), Dale Dickey (Dale), David Pittman (Blane), Susan Chernik (Susan).
It’s been eight years since Debra Granik’s debut feature - Winter’s Bone – a stunning movie about a teenage girl living in the Ozarks, trying to keep her family from coming apart at the seams after her drug dealing father disappeared. That film made a star out of Jennifer Lawrence – earning her the first Oscar nomination of her career (and, arguably, it’s a performance she still hasn’t topped, despite how good she is). In all that time, Granik has only directed one other film – a documentary, Stray Dog (unseen by me). She is finally back with Leave No Trace that has some superficial similarities to Winter’s Bone, but is a quieter, more naturalistic film. It stars Ben Foster as Will, a troubled army vet with PTSD, who lives out in the woods by his wits – along with his 13-year old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harourt McKenzie). The pair of them get on well together out there – they barely need to talk to each other. They have most of what they need out there as the forage and support themselves. Occasionally, the pair venture into town to get what they need – making some extra money by Will selling his prescription meds to other vets – also living off the grid in the woods.
Of course, they won’t be able to live out there forever – and sure enough, Tom is spotted by a hiker in the woods, and soon their camp has been raided – and the pair separated and taken into custody – now at the mercy of the government bureaucracy they wanted no part of. That bureaucracy though isn’t as heartless and cruel as you may think – everyone there is well-meaning, and try to do their best to help both Will and Tom. They care about them – and even find a creative solution to keep them together. They’re given a small, isolated house – and Will is given work by the owner of that house, who runs a Christmas tree farm. Yet, that can only last so long. While Tom seems to flourish – she makes a friend, gets interested in the wider world, Will cannot cope. The noise of the farm – the helicopters in particular – seem to rattle him. The walls of the house are too confining. He is only going to last so long.
Leave No Trace is a quiet movie – one that doesn’t beat you over the head with its messages, nor force the characters into some kind of phony dramatics. At the heart of it, is the bond between father and daughter – and the two central performances are magnificent, as they get that bond precisely. Foster can overact at times in films (usually, to great affect), but here he dials way down. He doesn’t talk about what happened to him – what he saw, or what made him this way. He doesn’t need to – Tom understands in her own way. The pair of them support each other – get each other through. And yet, as strong as that bond is, it will only last so long. Tom is getting older – becoming an adult. Does she really want to spend her life in the woods, a prisoner of her father’s issues that he cannot overcome?
As the film comes to a close, these question come to the foreground, but even then, Granik doesn’t goose them with phony dramatics or a big fight. Tom stands up for herself in a way that is both quiet and assertive. Will doesn’t verbally respond at all. It’s a quietly devastating scene because it makes clear that sometimes even a bond this strong cannot survive – cannot last. These two love each other more than anyone or anything else in the world – but it’s still not enough.
The film is beautiful – shot mostly in the woods by cinematographer Michael McDonough – in ways that often dwarf the characters. It’s a film that makes critiques of the modern world, of the way America treats their wounded vets and other political points – but does so in an understated way, never losing sight of the characters. By the end, the film is devastating in its effect. This is a quiet film that never the less is intense, beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s one that expands in your mind after it’s over.

No comments:

Post a Comment