Leave No Trace - Review

I can remember reading My Side of the Mountain as a kid and having troubles visualizing Sam Gribley’s house made from a hollowed-out tree - I’d never seen a tree big enough to hollow out. I barely remember later reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet - I believe it was assigned summer reading, and therefore it was erased from my youthful mind as soon as possible, as per law - but I do remember being less interested in its hardy, gritty brand of survival. There were no pet peregrine falcons, instead there were weapons both improvised and of the title of the novel, sharp and willing to do harsh things to survive.

Both were stories of young, pliable men learning to respect the great outdoors; Debra Granik’s recent film Leave No Trace, released quietly in select theaters in June, is about a family being ripped from their cohabitation with nature already firmly in place. The first minutes of the film gently instruct us on the particulars of the primary question we have going in, showing the food and fire preparation, a routine game of chess, and a drill of how to hide when, inevitably, the wrong boots come walking. It’s all so simple and charmingly improvised that you immediately have sympathy for Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father, Will (Ben Foster, not so much acting as melting into the role).

The film follows Tom and Will as they live in the woods of a national park, are discovered, and forced to attempt to live according to society’s rules - in a house, with a job, going to school. These requests sound reasonable to us, and even reasonable to Tom, but Will simply can’t comply. When Tom implies things aren’t so bad, as they stand in the middle of their borrowed, beige, unfurnished home, Will replies mournfully: “We’re wearing their clothes, we’re in their house, we’re eating their food, we’re doing their work.” A silence dense as forest fog settles. “We can still think our own thoughts,” Tom echoes from earlier in the film, when her father was the one offering reassurances.

Director Debra Granik frames Leave No Trace with a kind of radical sympathy towards communities that often seem alien or distinctly other from the kind of people who see limited-release independent films; she cuts to a couple smiling next to a pot-belly stove outside their trailer house, or a kind ex-Navy medic who repairs one of our main characters’ leg and never asks questions. In contrast to her previous work, Winter’s Bone (2010), there’s an uncritical lens to these people and places that betrays some of the moral greyness at the heart of the film’s themes - Tom and Will only have money for supplies because he trades V.A.-given drugs for cash, for example, and multiple people are willing to drop what their doing and help Tom and Will seemingly only out of the goodness of their hearts, or in exchange for simple manual labor for a spell. Never are our characters asked to defend their choices, nor is any time given to other elements of the social contract that they presumably don’t engage with - it’s hard to imagine Tom pays taxes on his tarp-based bungalow.

As I watched these selfless homesteaders, or the men on ATVs who stop at a moment’s notice to help in an emergency, I realized that part of my discomfort was that the stories I’ve been told about rural life were being not even challenged, but ignored. In almost a conscious reproach to the depiction of life in the Ozarks of Winter’s Bone, depicted by actual natives to the region and full of menace and malice, Leave No Trace is rosy and clean. You can imagine referring to the community of trailers nestled off the grid in the forest as “good, simple folks”.

Perhaps that uncritical nature bothers me because I want there to be a debate - there are questions to be asked about the validity of our society’s structures, about the realities of everyone everywhere being accounted for and put into certain neat boxes; but the movie has already made up its mind, or at least doesn’t want to be asked, instead focusing on the more pedestrian, but more effective, relationship between a father and daughter, the latter of whom must do the care-taking as the film goes on, as her father retreats from the world again to the only place he can feel truly safe - in the wilderness, where what we may call unknown he would call simple, reliable, and quiet. In a world where sitting in a theater to watch the film fills me with dread over an imagined gunman, or in my home where there are no less then ten electronic devices committing surveillance on what I see and hear, I’m inclined to agree; but when I consider the natural danger Tom and Will put themselves in, or the realities of how people like me have fucked over people who live in rural communities, leading to a cultural divide hard to reconcile, I don’t exactly feel inclined to consider a visit.

If Winter’s Bone is closer to Paulsen’s Hatchet, then Leave No Trace is My Side of the Mountain - more enjoyable, the world I would come back to despite its slightly silly conveniences or simplicity. (The plot of the more recent film is summarized in a sentence above; I struggle to remember the intricacies of Winter’s Bone meth-murder-mystery.) But underlying it is a tension both carefully constructed and overly narrow - the film is concerned with its heroes above all, to the detriment of what it could offer to a larger conversation.