Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: Leave No Trace 

Director: Debra Granik


Highly Recommended 

What is it like to live right next to ordinary life and not engage in it? What does it mean to survive undetected? These were the questions that grabbed director Debra Granik when she first read the book My Abandonment by Peter Rock which serves as the source material for her triumph of a film: Leave No Trace.

From the outset, the film is told entirely without over-explanation or attempts to walk the audience through the narrative. We are placed in a large park outside Portland with two outsiders, both of whom seem to have been living there for an unspecified period of time. We see their tents and camping gear, their waterproof clothing and chess set. It becomes clear that they are keen to avoid any detection and therefore have rehearsed ‘drills’ in order to cover their tracks. Of course, as the first third plays out, questions begin to arise about the reason for their unconventional existence.

The two characters are a father and daughter played by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. Foster has long been churning out excellent performances; he has challenged himself through playing varied and interesting characters (William Burroughs in Kill Your Darlings, Lance Armstrong in The Program and most notably as Tanner Howard in Hell or High Water). Here, he is utterly convincing as the father, Will – an ex-army man suffering from PTSD. McKenzie is also wonderful as his daughter, Tom. It is her ability to convey the emotions she feels for her father through minimal dialogue that really stands out. There are no theatrics or grandstanding. Granik has been credited with kick-starting the career of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and it would be entirely unsurprising if McKenzie now embarks on a similar trajectory as an actress.

What works so well in Leave No Trace is the way Granik tells (or, indeed, doesn’t tell) the backstory of Will. Again, she steers clear of mawkish flashbacks (there are none) or any conversations purely for the benefit of the viewer. Instead, she reveals his past through subtle remnants of a time before the pair lived this way: tattoos, medication, reactions to helicopters. We are left to fill in the blanks.

Will and Tom’s world changes after they are dragged back into ‘reality’ when their camp is discovered. They both must navigate, physically and metaphorically, the situation they now find themselves in. They are soon integrated back into society, which Will is clearly uncomfortable with and unready for. Tom, however, begins to feel connections with some of the people she meets. From here ensues an emotional interplay between the father and daughter, both knowing what the other must do. 

After an ending that is completely in keeping with the rest of the film, I was left, once again, reminded that the best films are those that do not rely on trite, vapid attempts to emotionally provoke an audience. Giving them space to make their own decisions and bring their own experiences is surely what creates a deep connection. And, when done like this, the emotion can be inescapable. TS