In Matt Ross’ 2016 comedy-drama Captain Fantastic¸ Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) raises his six children in a familial commune, isolated deep inside the forests of Washington, wherein he is guided by the philosophical principles of Noam Chomsky to teach his brood to adhere to values of self-reliance, critical thinking and co-existence with nature. The film’s thesis – depicted in the conflict between Ben and his father-in-law (Frank Langella) – is whether this form of unconventional parenting style is in the best welfare of the children; by removing them from the modern conveniences of Western civilisation, has Ben left his family inadequately prepared to co-exist in the wider world? Whereas Captain Fantastic often foregrounded this ethical quandary via comedic juxtapositions of the Cash children in supermarkets and diners, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace treads a similar narrative footing to a noticeably bleaker and anguished effect.
Granik’s first film in eight years – following 2010’s Winter’s Bone which served as the launchpad for Jennifer Lawrence – Leave No Trace is a similarly beguiling and introspective study of subsistence and survival amongst the downtrodden men and women of America. Will (Ben Foster) is a PTSD-afflicted veteran, prone to Captain Willard-like reveries of whirring helicopter blades. Along with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), the pair eke out a fraught life in the woods of a national park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. As it is illegal to reside on public land, Will and Tom must live invisibly, re-using everything and wasting nothing, whilst also running drills to hide in the event of a “burn”. When a fluke encounter reveals their camp’s location and leads to their subsequent eviction, the father and daughter must learn to reintegrate into a conventional social contract. However, as Tom slowly acclimates to the value of communal living, the extent of her commitment to her father’s trauma-induced immersion in the wilderness begins to unravel.
Leave No Trace is a subtle yet emotionally devastating feature that revels in the romanticism of the Henry David Thoreau-meets-Bear Grylls lifestyle of its protagonists – the camera often rests on ferns gently billowing in the breeze or rainwater dripping from moss while Tom recycles the eggshells from her breakfast in her herb garden – yet simultaneously suggesting the despondency of Will and Tom’s Edenic existence. Brief digressions to a Portland hospital and a forest shantytown convey the stark reality of life for demobilised military personnel, yielding in no small part an allusion to John Huston’s famous documentary on PTSD-afflicted soldiers arriving home from the Second World War, Let There Be Light, which itself was cited by Paul Thomas Anderson as a reference for The Master. Will’s retreat into nature stems less from any philosophical underpinning a la Captain Fantastic and more as the only pragmatic option available to a castaway.
The self-contained universe of the film affords a showcase for the central relationship between father and daughter and the actors who inhabit them. As Will, Ben Foster adds another string to his bow as one of America’s most wiry character actors, finding a hangdog intensity in Will’s haunted psyche. Additionally, just as Debra Granik brought the world’s attention to a young Jennifer Lawrence, Granik may have found another star of tomorrow in Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. While Will’s machinations serve as the engine of the film’s plot, it is Tom’s journey of discovery that forms the beating heart of Leave No Trace. Caught on the horns of a dilemma between caring for her fragile father and finding spiritual succour in a trailer park community amongst a wider network of people, McKenzie draws on an affecting emotional range that communicates a nascent introspection and the growing realisation of the importance of the self in self-reliance.
Much like Lynne Ramsay’s feted return this year with the riveting You Were Never Really Here, Debra Granik has crafted a vital and timely feature well worth the eight years away from the screen. Leave No Trace thoughtfully and compassionately examines a personal confrontation between the desire for solitude and simple living in an immersive natural arena, and the lure of a communal network, anchored by the sympathetic father and daughter union of Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.