One of the more pressing concerns of any narrative film is the representation of the environment – in purely geographic terms – that surrounds the characters and plot. In the hands of a carefully attuned director, the setting can (and almost always should) inflect and influence the mood of the film and the course of the events, drawing upon a landscape in order to reflect upon whatever conflicts or crises the figures are involved in. Such an ideal seems to apply to such a film as Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik.
Granik, whose last narrative feature film was the widely lauded Winter’s Bone back in 2010, seems to have developed this sense of location and place as her professed metier: her previous film derived much of its critical cachet from its hard-nosed portrayal of the Ozarks and the people that inhabited it. In a similar vein, Leave No Trace is defined by its primary (though crucially not sole) location: the forests of Oregon and Washington, especially an unspecified public park outside Portland.
Said park is the home of military veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), who live almost in complete seclusion, isolated from society save for occasional trips into town for supplies. Their well-honed and fragile existence is upended by the intrusion of the police, who transfer the two first to a social services center and then to a farm with the intentions of slowly easing them into conventional living. Will, who has been battling PTSD, chafes against this enforcement and escapes back into nature, bringing a somewhat reluctant Tom along with him.
I should note here that on the whole I was somewhat distanced from Winter’s Bone, which, save for detailed and forceful performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, felt too diffuse and sketched to function to more than a surface level. The same problem seems to afflict Leave No Trace, in a manner largely attributable to the structure.
Leave No Trace lives and dies on the strength of the opening section, which aims to portray the life that Will (and by extension Tom) has chosen. Much of it is driven by action; though the time period covered appears to only be a few days, it seems apparent that the events shown are a continuation of an established routine of the father and daughter working in tandem, with the former teaching the latter survival skills through hands-on practice. This section is well-constructed and detailed in and of itself, but the issue comes in terms of its length. Running something less than twenty minutes, the section barely has enough time to establish a mood before the film becomes mired in a relatively long expanse of time stuck in bureaucratic procedures and tests.
Granik has a sense of assuredness with performers and pacing, and Foster and McKenzie infuse the relationship upon which Leave No Trace revolves with a strong, much-needed kinship. But a sense of grounding in a particular place or, towards the end, a particular community feels missing. The relationship feels too ultimately isolated, too obviously developed over the course of the narrative, that the film surrounding it ultimately feels considerably less than the sum of its parts.