One of my all-time favorite movie memories happened at Sundance in 2010, when, after getting shut out of screenings for a few highly-buzzed, star-studded premieres (which naturally no one remembers now) I wandered my way into the only other film available in that time slot, a bleak-looking little hero’s journey set in the Ozarks called Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik. That one ended up blowing me away, not to mention launching the career of a then-unknown actress named Jennifer Lawrence. She was onstage for the premiere, capturing hearts and telling us how she’d had to gut a squirrel during the shoot, small-glimpses of the candid, camera-loving persona she’d eventually become known for.
Getting blind-sided by a film you’d never heard of, witnessing the emergence of a new star and and new storytelling voice, in a story set in a specific place that radiated authenticity — it was basically everything great about film festivals rolled into one. So it was with great anticipation that I sought out Debra Granik’s follow-up feature*, Leave No Trace (*though she did direct a documentary in the intervening years, 2014’s Stray Dog).
Granik’s latest is another meditative atmospheric about a father and daughter. Ben Foster and Thomasin Mackenzie play Will and Tom, a haunted veteran who has taken his fear of crowds to its most extreme conclusion and done his best to live like Bigfoot in a national forest — foraging for food, living under tarps and tents and avoiding crowds; and his devoted teenage daughter who’s along for the ride. He drills her on being able to make herself invisible at a moment’s notice and chastises when she overuses the propane.
We’re never entirely sure what Will’s avoiding (Is it just society in general or the law in particular?) and we’re left to piece together the disparate clues, like the way his eye lingers on a particular newspaper headline. The same way the smallest crumbs of comfort take on outsize meaning in a minimalist lifestyle like Tom and Will’s, the same is true of the kernels of exposition Granik doles out so stingily.
In that way, Leave No Trace is a masterful exemplar of the show-don’t-tell-rule, a lyrical pastoral that explores the implications of finding meaning in living rough — the need to feed our tribal instinct by hunting and gathering. There’s certainly something to the idea that it’s easier to understand your place in the universe when you’re constantly performing the basic tasks necessary for survival. You rarely worry about the meaning of life when you’re an integral part of a small group, when it’s so plain that you’re an irreplaceable puzzle piece. Family becomes so much more important.
If Winter’s Bone was all the things I love about festivals and festival movies, though, Leave No Trace epitomizes many of their shortcomings. It’s a beautifully-shot, deeply-felt story that I mostly enjoyed but just isn’t compelling enough to wholeheartedly recommend. Put bluntly, it’s a movie where the characters don’t say much and not a lot happens. The acting is wonderful, with Ben Foster doing solid work and Thomasin Mackenzie doing the kind of break-out work Lawrence did in Winter’s Bone, and the cinematography worthy of seeing on a big screen (full disclosure: I watched it as an online screener, which seems less than ideal, the narrative requires immersion). But let’s face it, there’s a limit to how many times I can watch characters gather sticks.
Winter’s Bone had an undercurrent of menace, an ever-present tension that gave every scene momentum. There was a visceral, punk rock matter-of-factness to it and an unforgettable scene with a chainsaw. It made John Hawkes seem like a guy who might kick your ass, which is to the eternal credit of both Hawkes’ acting and Granik’s directing. Leave No Trace has the same kind of outsider-family narrative, lyrical cinematography, and place-specific authenticity, but the edge isn’t there. It’s valuable for depicting a haunted veteran whose PTSD doesn’t manifest as drug addiction or violence, or in any of the stereotypical ways, just not always especially entertaining. It eschews sensationalism, at times to its detriment. There are times it’s so subdued as to be barely there.