The team of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have created another marvellous film that stands alongside Zama and Sweet Country as a highlight of 2018 viewing. Rosellini is co-writer and producer and Granik is co-writer and director. The pair have made four films together. They all feature characters struggling to survive on the edges of American society in ‘marginal’ communities but also displaying strength of purpose and real humanity. Most reviewers have singled out the success of the pair’s Winter’s Bone (US 2010) as a good starting point for discussing the new film and there are certainly some important links, but it is unfortunate that UK distributors were seemingly unwilling to release Stray Dog (US 2014). That documentary film features a Vietnam veteran who forty years later has found peace and purpose as a biker who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri and cares for his extended family and his community of similarly-minded people. Several elements from this film are worked into Leave No Trace.
The new film is inspired by the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock and the film credits list three other books used by the writers and actors in their search for some kind of authenticity in the representation of narrative events. Leave No Trace is one of those films in which the central characters are not given a back story, or at least it is not spelt out for us and we must work with only scraps of information. On the other hand, the story does have connections to both mainstream and independent film genres. It opens in a temperate rain forest where a father and his teenage daughter appear to have been living for some time as they are well-equipped and organised with set routines and even a small vegetable plot. Our first surprise is that the forest is not in a remote area, but actually close to a major road bridge and the urban mass of Portland. We follow the couple into town where they visit a military veteran’s event and a supermarket. We are in Oregon and I was reminded of the first Rambo film (First Blood US 1982) in which the hero is eventually chased through the forests of the North West and the very different Wendy and Lucy (US 2008) set, like some of her other films, by Kelly Reichardt in small town Oregon. Some reviewers have also mentioned Captain Fantastic (US 2016) which I haven’t seen. I think there might also be elements shared with Into the Wild (US 2007) and some European films such as Vie Sauvage (France-Belgium 2014)
Will (Ben Foster) is indeed a veteran, though we never find out where or when he fought. Only when he sells some prescription medication to men in a camp by the park do we realise that he might have some form of PTSD. Ben Foster is very good as Will and it was only after the screening that I realised that he was one of the stars in the excellent Hell or High Water (US 2016). He was also the lead in The Messenger (US 2009) in which he is a soldier close to the end of his tour of duty who is sent to deliver the terrible news of the death of loved ones to soldiers’ families. I see that I praised him for both roles so the fact that I didn’t recognise him says a lot about his ability to inhabit his roles. Will’s daughter is ‘Tom’ (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander with a big future). Her mother (and presumably Will’s wife/partner) is never mentioned. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but the shape of the story requires the couple to be first ‘discovered’ by the authorities and then placed in a ‘re-socialisation’ programme from which Will forces another escape. But this isn’t an action film. Its central focus is the father-daughter relationship and their love for each other. The problem is that while Will needs an escape/an alternative/a diversion from the world in his head, Tom is still open to anything that might happen. I found the film’s ending satisfying in how it tried to deal with this, especially when Dale Dickey appeared (she features in both Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water). My hope and expectation is that audiences will be deeply moved by the central relationship.
Leave No Trace is a complex and many-layered narrative. The title also refers to the exhortation heard by anyone who ventures into a national park or area of outstanding beauty. I remember as a teenager in the 1960s been told not to leave orange peel on Lake District fells. Will is very disciplined in how he works with the environment and he has taught Tom well. The irony is that the forest in which we first see Will and Tom is so close to urban America so they exist in a kind of no man’s land – I did wonder where the eggs came from until I saw father and daughter stroll into town. As one review I read suggested, it is also surprising that the local welfare agencies assume the worst when they pick up Will and Tom – and Will is forced to answer questions asked by a computer in scenes reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake. The welfare agencies do seem polite and professional but I would find their controlling attitudes unbearable and there is a scene on a bus which quite shocked me. The other side of the authorities is represented visually when bulldozers arrive to knock down the shanty town/tent city occupied by rough sleepers close to the city. I remember similar scenes from films set in apartheid era South Africa and from recent films like Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013).
The US is a very big country with plenty of land but it now all seems to be owned by the government and major landowners alongside the those who own their own homes. It’s seemingly difficult to find a place to pitch your tent and live away from people if you are poor. If you are rich you can build your own estate. Politically, ‘living in the woods’ now seems like a right-wing survivalist activity that stirs up all those American ideas about freedom and the right to bear arms. That doesn’t fit with Will and Tom but it seems like a discourse which Granik and Rosellini attempt to counteract in Stray Dog and again in Leave No Trace. There is another older idea about living in the woods which goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) and stresses the simplicity and direct contact with nature. Leave No Trace comments obliquely on this by showing the ‘home-schooled’ Tom reading her encyclopedia in her home-made shelter and crushing egg-shells (anti-slug protection?) to place around her tiny plot of brassicas (?). The sense of the natural world is carried by both the cinematography of Scottish DoP Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone and Sunset Song (UK 2015)) and the sound design (a single ‘sound designer’ is not credited). In the first few minutes I recognised that sound of the rain filtering down through the tree branches in the forest. The music is under the control of composer Dickon Hinchliffe, another Brit and founder member of Tindersticks, who was responsible for the music in Winter’s Bone and as in that film, some of it here is diegetic and performed on ‘set’.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie spent time in a New Zealand forest preparing for her role and it did occur to me that Leave No Trace has many of the same elements found in Hunt For the Wilderpeople (NZ 2016). The New Zealand film was more light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, but like Leave No Trace it also suggested that living wild could be educational/restorative and that not everyone you meet ‘off grid’ is out to harm you. There have been predictable claims that Thomasina Harcourt Brace could emulate Jennifer Lawrence’s success after Winter’s Bone. Her performance in Leave No Trace is as assured as Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone. I don’t know if she has the same drive and charisma in other situations but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out. Leave No Trace should win prizes. The only other recent American film I’ve seen with the same quality is The Rider (still not on release in the UK).
Leave No Trace is a film to hunt down and watch on a big screen. You won’t be disappointed.
Debra Granik didn’t perhaps get the praise she deserved for Winter’s Bone, one of the best (and most genuine) of recent American ‘independents’. I was keen to see her first documentary feature.
Ronnie ‘Stray Dog’ Hall is a Vietnam veteran who forty years later seems to have come to terms with his experiences and found a way to live a fulfilling life in rural Missouri where he’s the effective leader (and landlord) of a community based in a trailer park. Ronnie’s life revolves around family and friends and, most importantly, the various Veterans’ Associations and memorial events – which with ongoing service in Afghanistan are increasing all the time. Ronnie is also a biker and his trip to Washington DC with his local chapter is an important early narrative strand in the documentary – but it doesn’t dominate the film as much as the publicity suggests.
This is a classic (and therefore conventional) observational documentary. Granik and her crew are invisible and Ronnie as a strong character leads us through his story without much need of intertitles and no commentary as such. We simply follow him around and occasionally glimpse his friends and relatives without him. There is no discernible ‘political’ or ‘social’ message in the film, but the documentary performs a political role here simply by what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t seek out the glib signifiers of a typical view of the American heartland and it doesn’t attempt to select or emphasise specific aspects of Ronnie’s life to make a ‘statement’. Ronnie is clearly a nice guy who is loved and respected. He wears the US flag with pride but he has no time for politicians. He supports the Veterans’ causes and he has accepted counselling. He knows he’ll never come to terms with what happened in Vietnam. He’s been married twice to first a Korean and then to a Mexican and he welcomes his second wife’s 19 year-old sons to America just as he cares about his own granddaughter’s future.
I liked Ronnie and I like the documentary. The music, as in Winter’s Bone, is very good and Ronnie likes his dogs. I hope this gets a UK release. It’s the best kind of ‘feelgood’ film.