For a film to tackle the numbing effects of post-crisis dissociation with its entire formal being should be laudable. Leave No Trace, however, falls somewhat flat amidst this ambition – funnily enough, mostly due to the success of the attempt. By no means a poor film, it’s instead one that never quite takes off; exceptional performances and dense thematic complexity are belied by the sense of shambling, dissociated melancholy that ultimately fails it. While the core is genuinely rich, the way it’s unspooled lacks the same power.
But what force it has comes from the exceptional relationship at the centre. Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie play Will and Tom, a father-daughter duo living and surviving out in the Oregon wilderness. He trains her in stealth and survival, teaching her to fend off the elements, and, more importantly, leave no trace of their presence. Soon enough, however, modernity comes calling to spoil their Walden-esque existence. Initial scenes outline this relationship, the younger’s irritation with frugality tempered by a deep paternal trust. It’s a trust barely contextualized in actual language. Foster, in an unusually subtle performance, conveys his trauma, paranoia, and grief mostly through squints and sighs, his rough beard and perennial shemagh scarf denoting a permanent veteran. McKenzie – in a stunning, wide-ranging performance – seems a wide-eyed, naive opposite; however, behind this comes a knowing glint, the actor countering any presumed openness with an equitable weariness.
It’s an affectation of confusion and disorder against any attempt at self-reconciliation
Where the two might seem linked in mutual mistrust of the modern world, however, the film doesn’t fall into such an easy nature vs. civilisation narrative. The philosophical differences in this relationship are subtle, playing steadily out through the course. The twin figures of isolation and conformism need not remain so separate; to that end, the creeping modernity that Will so fears is less a symptom of the world, than his own inability to make a place within it. Perversely, much of the woodland here is not full of natural, vibrant splendour, but is instead wetted, made grey by the fog, rain, and mud. Conversely, the manmade is not entirely comprised of slick IKEA forms, but the decaying modernity of Americana. It’s an affectation of confusion and disorder against any attempt at normalcy; the traumatised characters simply lack grounding in even subjective reality.
It’s a shame, then, that the result of this considered malaise is so dry. The film just continues, never quite finding a momentum, as each event sluggishly progresses to the next. The cinematography certainly makes an impression, but really only contributes to the problem – so much is drenched in browns, blues, and greys. The changes are all so subtle as to barely register. That theme of the unspoken means a film that plays out half-mute, occasional moments of levity surrounded by simple nothingness. It reflects a kind of dissociative non-presence, certainly, but at the cost of any discernible energy. When, in multiple scenes, Will and Tom trudge freezing through the woods, the sense is of only half-discontent. Likewise, the general quiet of the plot lacks tangible stakes and threat; while not inherently bad, it here makes for something that just can’t catch light.
When that centre is itself so understated, the power of these small incursions are lost over the space of the film
Supporting characters drift in and out, circling around the protagonists only to inform their connection. A councillor or pastor might challenge the father-daughter dynamic, only for their words to be shunted off to some mute resolution between the two. When that centre is itself so understated, the power of these small incursions are lost over the space of the film. Likewise, events come across with only so much meaning. An early part underscores this maddeningly gradual nature. Tom is separated from Will in the social care system. Two girls, beholden to fripperies of modern life, assure her that her dad will never return. They are reunited in the next scene. Naturally, the doubt of both his potential abandonment and her growing apart takes root, but only in the long-run of a two-hour movie. The immediate impression just seems like stasis. While this might make for technically interesting thematic exploration, the moment-to-moment experience comes off as unbearably static.
The film is undeniably well-constructed, with lived-in performances and a firm grasp of tone that help centre a theme of continual disorder and unsettlement. That commitment can’t always make for an engaging experience, however. If the construction is sound, then it fails in its purpose; the ambition is so pointedly meek and confused that it simply shoots itself in the foot at the first opportunity. Leave No Trace allows itself generous room for interpretation and exploration. It’s a shame that it then seems to lack any real presence or cohered being to engage with in the first place.
Header image by Scott Green. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.