I keep hearing the same thing regurgitating out of critics mouths when it comes to Leave No Trace and that’s the cliched line that ‘this will stick with you long after you have left the cinema’. It may not be the most well known cliche or even the snappiest (I mean, its a bit of a mouthful) but when it comes to reading reviews, its probably the most infuriating. Leave No Trace does stick with you after you have left the cinema, its true, but not in any kind of satisfactory way, it’s like a piece of gum on your shoe or a nasty bout of athletes foot. Every now and then it reminds you that it exists but it provides you with zero actual pleasure and a whole lot of disappointment.
Leave No Trace is Debra Granik’s follow up film to her far superior 2010 work Winter’s Bone, the film that put Jennifer Lawrence on people’s radar. While both films feature strong female leads trying to piece together their lives as best they can, Trace does so in almost total isolation with a spattering of meaningful encounters along the way.
The film follows Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), a father and daughter living in a national park just outside Portland, Oregon with only each other for companionship. When social services finally catches up to them they are forced to re-integrate into society, something that terrifies both of them for very different reasons.
What follows is beautiful, from a visual standpoint, as Granik has a keen eye for making nature seem both inviting and lonely at the same time. The almost absolute silence that comes with how they live only adds to the ambience. At first there is a certain peace that comes from it but as the film progresses you begin to understand that this lack of noise isn’t normal. Some might say that you don’t have to be normal but Granik seems to be emphasising that there should be some middle ground where a person can have their freedom and their self imposed isolation while still embracing people.
This conflict becomes the central issue between Tom and Will as their little bubble of family domesticity bursts, infecting Tom with the idea that there may be more to life than the closed off hideaways her father chooses for her. Will on the other hand is set in his ways, unwilling or unable to change, resolved to live on the land, to avoid the things that made him leave in the first place. It should make for compelling storytelling. Unfortunately it doesn’t.
It’s not hard to see what Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini were trying to convey, in fact it takes about 30 minutes for you to get the point. The problem is that the film leaves you waiting for some kind of development to further progress or build this relationship but what Granik gives you is the same tired, directionless meandering for almost two straight hours.
The moments when they are forced to encounter other human beings are the rare moments where the film excels as Will is forced to face his demons and his fears, something that is made all the more visceral by Granik’s strangely claustrophobic direction. As always Foster embraces these moments but they are few and far between and the dialogue light script fails to drag enough character out of Will to make him interesting enough to follow.
Tom on the other hand is fascinating, as the film shows her encountering many different kinds of people but never really telling you what she gets out of these meetings. Not only does the film want Tom to make her own decisions, it actively encourages you to make your own about her. McKenzie is excellent and I expect to see her in the future but she is stuck in a loveless role, a husk that the viewer is encouraged to flesh out. This makes her interesting ,sure, yet it rarely makes her real and for a film that feels almost like a documentary at times, realism is key.
If anything, the main issue Leave No Trace suffers from is the same things Tom does. There is an emptiness to not only the characters but the story that is impossible to ignore. The lack of connection becomes the films biggest detractor and despite some glimmers of hope here and there, the film never really recovers when it leaves it all behind in favour of two characters that don’t really feel like people. The film’s final emotional climax doesn’t feel earned and as pretty as the film looks, its just another case of style over substance.