Leave No Trace Reviews
It's a thought provoking story exploring what home and family truly means. Both leads are strong and the film is beautifully shot.
In Walden, his 1854 memoir/philosophical treatise, Henry David Thoreau chronicles a period of two years, two months and two days during which time he lived alone in a small cabin he himself had built in the forest near Walden Pond, Massachusetts, on property owned by his mentor and friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Inspired by the tenets of transcendentalism, of especial importance to Thoreau was "Self-Reliance", an 1841 essay by Emerson, which argues that an individual must avoid conformity, follow their own ideas and concepts, and trust in their own instincts, if they are to attain a deeper understanding of the nature of existence. In Walden, Thoreau was putting this concept to the test, isolating himself from civil society, and existing in nature with only the barest means of subsistence.
Walden went on to become one of the (many) foundational texts of libertarianism, the core principles of which are the valuation of personal liberty above all else, and the encouragement of scepticism towards authority in general, and the state/government in particular. Today, the two main strands are (the imaginatively named) left-libertarianism and right-libertarianism. The left advocates for the abolition of capitalism and private ownership of the means of production, arguing that natural resources must be either unowned or owned collectively by "the People", whilst the right calls for the abolition of the welfare state, and argues that individuals not only have a right to own property, but are morally obliged to do so.
All of which brings us to Debra Granik's Leave no Trace, which could, perhaps, be described as a darker version of Captain Fantastic. Will (Ben Foster), a veteran suffering from PTSD, is living off the grid with his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), making their home in a national park in Portland, Oregon. There, they embody many of the concepts underpinning Emerson's notions of self-reliance; individual authority, nonconformity, solitude, internal self-truth, with Will especially valuing freedom of thought. However, when a jogger sees Tom, park wardens are dispatched to track them down, and social services open an investigation into their situation. Will is aghast, resenting the infringement upon his autonomy, recalling Iain King's statement that "autonomy should only be infringed if a person is unable to know their own interests on a particular matter". This certainly isn't the case with Will, and he sees no reason why he and Tom shouldn't be allowed to continue to live in their own way.
None of the philosophical theories outlined above are explicitly mentioned anywhere in the film. However, knowledge of them definitely helps one to more easily understand Will. Whether Granik or her co-screenwriter Annie Rosellini are even aware of these concepts is beside the point, as they serve to give one a more assured theoretical entry point into a not easily penetrated film.
On a less theoretical note, the film does a lot that on paper would seem to be wrong; for long stretches of time, there is no real sense of any kind of standard Aristotelian conflict, as we simply observe Will and Tom going about their day. In tandem with this, the film is extremely light on plot, incident, and tangible character development, focusing instead on mood and tone, and calling upon the actors to externalise their emotions through action and expression rather than dialogue. Obviously, this means almost everything hinges on the quality of the performances and the believability of the bond between the characters. Thankfully, both Foster and McKenzie are exceptional; he plays Will as someone who has seen the darker side of humanity and has no time for frivolousness, whereas she plays Tom as someone desperate to have a childhood, but who also wants to make her father proud. In one particularly telling scene, when they must leave on a moment's notice, he tells her to pack only what is essential, and she places a toy horse in her backpack, but only after she has wrapped it up so Will can't see it, an action which tells us a great deal about both characters.
The film's pacing is both its greatest asset, and its biggest flaw. To speed things up would have compromised the tone. However, this kind of methodical pacing is likely to alienate a lot of viewers, who will undoubtedly criticise the film as boring, and its focus on Will and Tom to the exclusion of almost everything else as too narrow. When it does branch out, it is only insofar as to show how the two main characters are affected. What's especially interesting about the story, however, is that the narrative seems predicated on the transcendentalist notion of the inherent goodness of people; pretty much everyone Will and Tom encounter is trying to do right by them. In the end, what the film gives us is a deeply respectful portraiture of a man trying to make the best of it in the only way he knows how. A fine film.
Weaknesses: This is not the kind of movie for everyone. It is slow paced and there‚(TM)s not a lot in terms of excitement. That can be unappealing for many. There‚(TM)s also a few moments where it feels the filmmakers got a little too cute, adding lingering shots on nature for a bit too long. It‚(TM)s nitpicky, but it does bother a little.
Overall: One of the best films of 2018. It treats its audience with respect, tells an emotional story dealing with serious issues, and features incredible acting from the two leads. An overlooked gem.