It takes all of Leave No Trace before anyone tells Will (Ben Foster) he’s broken. The man knows, perhaps ineffably, that something’s fundamentally wrong inside of him, but it isn’t until the final moments of Debra Granik’s film that someone gives that wrongness finality, that someone finally allows Will to admit—and maybe accept—he can’t be fixed. Why: Granik affords us little background, save tattoos and a few helicopter-triggered flashbacks and a visit to the hospital to acquire PTSD meds all implying that Will is a military vet, though what conflict he suffered and for how long remains a mystery. As does the fate of Will’s deceased wife, mother to teenage girl Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). As does the length of time Will and his daughter have been living off the grid, hidden within the more than 5,000 acres of Portland’s Forest Park, a damp, verdant chunk of the city’s northwest side overlooking the Willamette River. As does the pain at the heart of Leave No Trace, though it hurts no less acutely for that.
Instead, Granik submerges us in detail, letting us build our own context from carefully deployed minutiae. A “drill,” in which Will instructs Tom on the many ways to stay undetected, or a midnight conversation in which Tom asks Will what her mother’s favorite color was, or a short argument about a cell phone, or Will’s silent penchant for horses: Granik explains nothing because nothing needs explaining, refusing to offer a shred of sensationalization to a story that’s one heavy-handed Trump metaphor away from total melodrama. Occasionally, Tom asks her father about his preferences, or what he likes, and without hesitation Will turns the question back on his daughter, his wooly beard and hopelessly sad eyes trained ever outward. Will has seemingly spent so long shielding himself from society, from connection with the rest of the human race, he’s unable to even provide the one person he cares about with a glimpse of what’s inside.
When authorities do inevitably discover Will and Tom’s existence, the duo’s shuffled away from society’s fringes, mostly to give Tom a chance at a more stable childhood and a public education on a rural Oregon tree farm, a compromise from the progressive bustle of Portland. It’s explained that if Will gives the government what paltry information they require, that if Tom lives with at least one toe on the grid, then the government will leave Tom and Will alone. Of course, Will can’t cut it, so he once again escapes with Tom north to Washington. The more distance they put between Forest Park and themselves, the more distance grows between father and daughter. Tom wants communities, hobbies, stability; Will wants to disappear. Tom, after all, begins to understand that she’s not broken. Not yet at least.
As was the case with Granik’s discovery of Jennifer Lawrence for the director’s previous film, 2010’s Winter’s Bone, her work here with New Zealand newcomer McKenzie is a marvel of pristinely balanced tone and heartwrenching nuance. Patient but bristling with curiosity and light, especially in contrast to Foster’s stoic resignation, McKenzie seems to understand intuitively what kind of young person, unblemished by modernity, could come from such circumstances. She’s as capable as she is ignorant, a protector who needs protection. The moment when Tom realizes exactly who her father is hums with the ache of loneliness far beyond what anyone could expect from a relatively inexperienced 17-year-old actor.
Foster, in turn, speaks tersely, his words just shadows of dialogue, or the skeleton of line readings, winnowed down to the barest of essentials. Comparing his performance here to that of Hell or High Water displays an astonishing range for the actor, but doing so also belies just how deeply Foster must understand Will, how thoroughly he empathizes with his character’s fate. Will isn’t struggling, he is the struggle, a man defined by peace insofar as such peace is a rarity stolen from the unending act of survival. What Leave No Trace portrays so beautifully, with so much unspoken grace, is that divide between living and surviving to live. One can find all of that dissonance in Foster’s fathomless eyes.
Granik weaves socio-political quandaries seamlessly into her narrative: our military industrial complex destroying the lives of those committed to protecting it; our idea of progress as antithetical to environmental sustainability; even Portland’s burgeoning homeless crisis driven by unmitigated gentrification and the “cleaning” of places like the Springwater Corridor, pushing people with no resources or choices further and further away from whatever social services they can actually attain. In consistently framing her characters against the overabundant, opaque might of the Pacific Northwest’s rainforests, Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough unfussily capture, almost ironically, the overwhelming nature of the forces conspiring against Will and his daughter.
Toward the end of this quietly stunning film, Tom shows her father a beehive she’s only recently begun to tend, slowly pulling out a honeycomb tray and tipping a scrambling handful of the insects into her cupped palm without any fear of being stung. Will looks on, proud of his daughter’s connection to such a primal entity, knowing that he could never do the same. Will begins to understand, as Tom does, that she is not broken like him. Leave No Trace asserts, with exquisite humanity and a long bittersweet sigh, that the best the broken can do is disappear before they break anyone else.
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rossellini
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Jeff Kober, Alyssa Lynn
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.