The survivalist saga Leave No Trace won’t want for praise

Debra Granik charts the evolution of a father-daughter relationship in microscopic detail.

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The extraordinary Winter’s Bone followed a young woman’s search for her errant father and ended with her watching his hands being removed by chainsaw. (Relax: he was dead already.) The writer-director Debra Granik stays with dad-and-daughter relationships for her new film, Leave No Trace. Based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, it foregoes the earlier picture’s thriller conventions without sacrificing its interior suspense.

Will (Ben Foster) has been living off-grid in Oregon for many years with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). They camp in the sprawling Forest Park, foraging for food but not too proud to visit a supermarket if Will has to go into town for his PTSD meds. Tom is homeschooled (campschooled?) by him, and subject to standard parental upbraiding about her clothes, though with an unusual slant: Will complains that Tom’s socks are too clean, and would give her away were she forced to camouflage herself from pursuers. They’re always wary of being watched – even riding the Portland Aerial Tram, they can still see a chopper buzzing overhead – but life seems harmonious. As they pick their way through the forest, they hum a faint duet: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Granik cuts just after the closing bars: “Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

It can’t last. Police and social services seize and isolate them. Will undergoes tests to establish his mental wellbeing. A creepy automated voice recites statements, each more sinister than the last (“I enjoy reading articles on crime… Things aren’t turning out like the prophet said they would…”), to which he must answer “true” or “false”. Behind him, a verdant vista of the kind from which he was recently expelled has been reproduced in the form of wallpaper.

Tom is placed temporarily in care. The other girls are cutting out magazine pictures to represent their goals in life: a love-heart, a house. It’s not long before father and daughter are reunited in a drab civic building where the eye, starved of greenery after those opening scenes, falls gratefully on to the potted plant in the corner.

The authorities have found them a cabin. It is remote but there are horses next door, horses on the shower curtain, plastic horses on Tom’s bedroom windowsill. Will is given a job making sure that Christmas trees are trimmed symmetrically for the nice people out in California.

This is where Foster’s casting really pays off. A cruder filmmaker than Granik might have given him an explosive, Mosquito Coast moment where he rails against civilisation. In fact, he doesn’t rage once and he doesn’t need to. We can see there’s a tornado inside him but all it does is make him eerily still. Sometimes the effect is humorous, such as when he is forced to sit through a flag-waving dance by the elderly “For His Glory” church troupe. When he decides he can’t take his new life any more, setting the film up for its more troubling second half, the breaking point is internal and mysterious but no less plausible for that.

Foster has a fond, predominantly wordless rapport with the 17-year-old McKenzie, whose darting eyes and twitching nose give her the look of a woodland animal. In one sense, the film explores familiar schisms, with the daughter growing apart by degrees from the father, except that their unconventional living arrangements transform  this into an issue of wider freedoms. The philosophical question hanging over Will and Tom’s happy defiance (who gets to decide how people live anyway?) intersects with a domestic one (why should the parent dictate the child’s lifestyle?). Granik charts the evolution of their relationship in microscopic detail, harvesting from the smallest gestures the sort of emotion that screenwriters spend pages trying to rustle up.

Father and daughter have a special noise they make, in lieu of saying “goodbye” or “I love you”, which sounds like a cross between birdsong and a kiss. In one scene near the end, as they confront a profound change, a bird can even be heard responding directly – the sound of nature adding its blessing to a film that won’t want for praise. 

Leave No Trace (PG)
dir: Debra Granik

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone