Leave No Trace review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There is an unsettling silence and coldness to Leave No Trace, where a father and daughter don’t have to say much even though we know they should. The two seem to be the most at home in nature, away from the civilized world the father finds too noisy and busy. But there’s a desperation and separation between the two, distant even when together, a world between them when mere rooms push them away. There’s so much rattling around inside them that simple writing their story off as a family wandering around the forest is a major injustice.
Ben Foster plays Will with great quiet and power as a PSTD effected veteran. He resides in the woodland areas of Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They live a life of survival and seclusion, trained not only to make do with the land but also hide from anyone seeking to take them away. They only go into town to secretly seek a means of helping others hiding out in the woods with them. They’re unsuccessful, however, and are found by authorities, taken in for care by social services.
Now here is where the film could have crashed and burned. It could’ve just as easily been a fish out of water story about Will and Tom trying to adjust to civilized society. But director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) always keeps the story a personal one, too tragic to let everything spill out. Take for example the scene where Will is given a series of yes or no questions to answers. Some he answers easily, others he strains with, reasonably so with such questions about how you feel about your life and if you feel that things are left unresolved. Don’t we all? But Will strains these words because he still doesn’t feel all there, even when the state believes they have given him a purpose.
We keep thinking that Will is just on the cusp of some big rant about society, commercialism, and the destruction of nature. He is given a rural job of cutting up trees for a living, something that clearly wears on him as work without ethics or purpose. From his brow and his eyes, he hates this life of destroying the world and going home to a TV he won’t watch. He’d rather be in the woods, where he feels free and at peace with the world.
But Tom knows this can’t last, not so much for him but for her. She’s had a taste of both worlds and it’s clear which one she favors, not so for the mere artificiality of the one with warm beds and clothing. It’s not easy to depart from one’s father when they know they won’t connect but Tom’s departure comes with a quiet realization with a side of bitterness. One of the most powerful scenes features her making this connection when she learns from a kindly old woman about how to care for bees, to earn their trust that they won’t sting you. Subtle and somber, where her expression upon parting ways carries more in the eyes than dull words ever could.
Leave No Trace becomes incredibly engrossing for how it always holds our attention with how long Will can keep his closet closed and how long Tom will go along with his quietness. The gloom and coldness can be felt throughout where you’re just about on the verge of tears for this small family. Will’s tears come easily while Tom’s have been hardened as cold as her feet when hiking through the chilly wilderness. Even when I knew what was on the horizon for their strained relationship, there’s an undeniable, unshakable aspect that I wanted to see where they would go next, how they would live, and if they could live together.