Leave No Trace Reviews
Sometimes while sitting at your pointless wage-earning life-drain, you may fantasize about just dropping everything and running into the forest. Most of us never do anything with this primal drive to leave the artifice of modern living, or we might go camping on the weekend to get a little taste of it. But there's nothing fulfilling about a weeny roast in an RV park because it isn't really a mortal priority. Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have managed to keep society at arms length enough to find some solace. More out of necessity for the father, an ex-Marine who has a severe case of rambling, they make do with the scarcity of the forest, and the satisfaction of being able to "think [their] own thoughts". The idea that this is never more overtly explained makes Leave No Trace seem all the more supernatural. Helicopters haunt Will's dreams, and when forced by the state to acclimate to the trappings of even rural society one can immediately sense his fight-or-flight senses being triggered by the simple ubiquity of technology.
American society has always taken the scraps from the table of military technological innovation. From the cathode ray to the microwave to the internet we've rather suddenly bombarded our simian/reptile minds with unnatural light, and all of this innovation has been in an attempt to effectively inflict the most damage and terror possible on ourselves. We commit this crime against humanity well, and I think only someone who knows the theater of modern warfare can fully grasp the horror of its potentiality. But there are also quiet, beautiful places left on this Earth where to take solace. One just has to survive long enough to find them. Much of what is spoken between Will and Tom is pragmatic and stoic, but this simplicity underlies a much deeper emotional context that resonates far beyond their situation. Leave No Trace is a reminder that you don't have to be alone in the torment of this world, but you do have to find a place where you fit.
Former Marine Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. Their idyllic life is shattered after they're discovered and are put into a social services program. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom sneak out of their new home and embark on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland.
It's sad to think situations exactly like this are happening in today's America, but the film never sensationalizes how society has failed our veterans. The majority of the film's characters are invisible, unhoused, and living in the woods. To call them isolationists seems unfair: they simply find their own human connections through privacy. Who are we to say what defines a home?
It's a positive thing if you see this film and think, 'wow, I'm certainly fortunate to have so many things that I take for granted.' A warm house, a big screen t.v., a reliable car - these are all possessions that make us comfortable. In this story we are surrounded by characters who have very little, yet they create their own sense of community.
The real anchors here are the two leads. Foster (who elevates every project he's ever been in) lends an intense yet quiet desperation to a man with serious PTSD. The wisdom and sophistication in McKenzie's star making performance is nothing short of breathtaking. The two have a natural chemistry and sincere rapport as they work and struggle together as a family, and the conflict that arises after Tom realizes her life doesn't have to be her father's feels so raw and authentic that it hurts.
This is a film that will frustrate some casual moviegoers as it is stingy with concrete answers and background on the characters and their motivations. Instead, you're thrust directly into their world of living off the grid. You never learn the "why" of the story, but carefully placed hints are dropped along the way.
If you're familiar with Granik's previous work ("Winter's Bone," "Down to the Bone"), you'll most likely admire her ability to establish a strong sense of place. Every last detail, from the peeling wallpaper of an abandoned trailer to the minutes-long stretches of silence to drops of icy rain, serve a purpose. Michael McDonough 's cinematography proficiently captures the harsh and dense Pacific Northwest forest where the pair reside.
The movie is quiet and contemplative in a way that's so haunting, it sometimes feels as vulnerable as the characters. This is a powerful expression of what it must be like to live on the fringes of the American Dream.
A SCREEN ZEALOTS REVIEW
I may see this again, or definitely view on TV
The acting is superb. Ditto the camera and musical work. The theme is however not up to a A rating.
The film's plot is generally undefined and meandering the whole way through with it's main characters reacting to situations they encounter with them never developing enough and being proactive like we'd expect. This becomes repetitive and predicable like someone telling you a story of things that happened back to back but never getting to the point. One explanation for this may be because this film was adapted from a novel/true story and the writer/director wanted to remain faithful to the original. Further, the stakes are never high enough in this film to get the emotions going. Emotions, you know, the reason why we go to the movies in the first place. The main characters never have enough to lose embedded within the story to make it dramatic, and it makes the film appear flat.
You could say that maybe towards the end when the girl coincidentally finds her father in the woods unconscious from injuring himself is dramatic enough. But again, it's a situation, and not really part of the bigger theme. He bounces back in the next scene and is not that big of a deal in the film, strangely. I realize writing this now that the storytellers included that situation as a MacGuffin! The father getting injured is not essential to the film's overarching themes but they needed the main characters to be rescued, go once again out of the woods and into another civilized place to live so the film could once again show the father's desire to live off the grid in the woods. Yes, he packs up again and goes back into the woods for the third time.
The acting was good and I have greatly enjoyed Ben Foster's performances in other films. But I found the main characters too rigid and reserved and believe this was done by design to make them appear more emotionally closed off to go along with the father dealing with PTSD, history of loss with his wife/her mother etc. Though, it appeared a bit disingenuous and somewhat unnatural.
One general thing that I found odd was that the story seemed to jump back and forth between being about the father and then about the daughter without clearly cluing us in early enough with who this film is really about until the end when the daughter makes the decision to part ways from her father because he wants to live in the woods and she now refuses. The film is about her, the theme being that the daughter didn't have a sense of a stable home because her father was going through mental issues.
I found a lack of clarity about who this film is really about and from which character's perspective. Simply, who is the protagonist? The story seems to jump back and forth between being about the father dealing with his mental issues and then about the daughter longing for a normal life.
People may assume that I just didn't get it. I don't believe that's the case here. I understand it's an independent type of movie but it felt like a passion project and lacking the cohesion that would have made this a fantastic film.