“The painful paradox is that fighting for one’s country can render one unfit to be its citizen.” This line from Jonathan Shay’s essential book on combat PTSD, Achilles in Vietnam, has stuck with me since first reading it 14 years ago. Over the next five years spent counseling combat vets, I saw it apply to many, though not most, individuals I treated: men whose hypervigilance turned their homes into fortresses, men whose rage was ungovernable, men with complete mistrust of all institutions, men who lived almost totally off the grid due to their inability to tolerate human company.
It is one of these latter figures who forms half of the dyad at the heart of Leave No Trace. Will (Ben Foster) is a former marine dwelling on national forestland with his teen daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). They only enter civilization sporadically, for Will’s visits to the Portland VA hospital, or to gather provisions at a grocery store.
As directed and co-written by Debra Granik, exposition drips out intermittently, but it’s obvious from watching Will and Tom’s routine that they’ve been doing this for years. They forage for edibles, set up their tent, peaceably fend off wildlife, and practice evasion drills.
Less than a quarter of the way into Leave No Trace, this routine is shattered through a raid by park rangers and law enforcement. Father and daughter are separated and questioned by social services, to ensure that Tom hasn’t been abused (negative), nor her education neglected (no again). Once reunited, they’re housed in a trailer, as Will goes to work on a Christmas tree farm, and Tom befriends a boy from the local 4-H Club. The query hanging in the air is whether Will can tolerate civilization, or will they go back into the wild?
The success of Granik’s film largely hinges on the performances of her two leads, with one or both of them in every scene. Well, no worries here: they’re terrific together and apart. The bond between them is completely convincing, as they communicate through verbal and non-verbal shorthand. As in Granik’s previous feature, Winter’s Bone, the emotions are muted, but the care still apparent.
Ben Foster conveys Will’s inner torment subtly, in the helicopter-themed nightmares that awaken him, and in his semi-masked unease when compelled to keep company with humans other than Tom. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, in her first major screen role, has to do more heavy lifting than Foster. As Tom, she achingly expresses the ambivalence she feels, torn between loyalty to her dad and her desire to experience the wider world.
Leave No Trace contents itself with long stretches of little to no dialogue, but in Tom’s empathic gaze towards her dad and her perceptive interaction with the VA population, it’s evident that she precociously gets PTSD. Yet, as she tells her dad in one of the more extended periods of conversation, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”
Additionally, the intermingling of humans and non-humans is beautifully and symbolically portrayed. With animals, Will finds solace and safety that he otherwise only finds with Tom. The warmth of a beehive is analogous to the communal connection that Tom longs for; Tom’s discovery that seahorses pair-bond for life and seek each other’s eyes on first awakening represents the intensity of the bond between her and Will.
The imagery and music work as they should to shore up Leave No Trace’s power and meaning. Both the cinematographer (Michael McDonough) and composer (Dickon Hinchliffe) collaborated with Granik on Winter’s Bone, and they synergize splendidly.
The greens of the Pacific Northwest, with its giant trees, ferns, and mosses, are a serene contrast to the jarring urban racket so intolerable to Will. The reflection of this verdure in Tom’s near-gaunt facial features, on the other hand, gives her a sickly hue.
Granik withholds musical undergirding for the majority of the in-nature sequences, with droning strings only at moments of tension. Yet when Tom is among decent people, Hinchcliffe’s score is far more melodic, indicating the brightness of her sought-after connections.
Refreshing, too, is a film that is almost free of violence. Those we meet are virtually all good, ordinary folk; the main danger to our leads comes from the PTSD-inflicted constriction of Will’s choices.
Like Winter’s Bone, I expect the story and characters in Granik’s latest film will linger in my brain for years. All told, this is made-and-set-in-America cinema at some of its finest.
4.5 out of 5 stars