What struck me right away about Debra Granik’s latest achievement is its verdant greenness. Most frames hold one hue or another of Nature’s colour, enveloping its two protagonists like a protective shield against discovery. At once you understand why they are drawn to living in the open air rather than an environment teeming with people. They have a communion with the earth that could not be reproduced any other way—an important communion for Ben Foster’s character especially, for he is a war veteran who has been through far too much. Granik is sensitive to his struggles in a way many filmmakers are not. She is not interested in exploiting it for drama or pinning Oscar clips on Foster’s chest like scouting badges. He is haunted in private ways that reveal themselves in fleeting glances, and these are ways that his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) does not fully comprehend. She needs the greenness and the open air only because her father needs it more. As Granik goes on to explore, Tom begins to find the prospect of settling down a promising one, while such a prospect will forever remain daunting to Foster’s Will. There are bonds that tie us in the familial way, and Leave No Trace cherishes such bonds with all its might. There are also bonds to be made communally, in the presence of others, which are not necessary for everyone. To reconcile bonds that we need and bonds that we can’t have is what this film tries to do, and my goodness, does it do it beautifully.
Granik, as many know, has not graced our screens very much. After hitting it big with Winter’s Bone, she became a sort of Marilynne Robinson figure in cinema, quietly walking away from the limelight for an extended period while people wondered if she would ever return. And, like Robinson, she has emerged victorious after this hiatus, proving that cinematic masters need not churn out films on a yearly basis in order to justify their greatness. Leave No Trace is a gentler, more internal study of the intersection between the human and wilderness than Winter’s Bone was, but it is no less absorbing. The grit arrives in small spurts, like Tom’s close call with hypothermia, or Will’s accident by the creek. The dialogue is whittled into essential expressions of feeling, both hardy and aching with a yearning to express more. And the performances provide skeins of wisdom belying both performers—McKenzie because of her relative newness to the scene, and Foster because he is not shooting for the stars like with previous performances. With harmonious felicity, Foster and McKenzie trace Granik’s story like a twig parting sand. She couldn’t have asked for a better duo.
Where Granik takes us next, we don’t know. It may be that she waits another six or seven years to bring another vision to us. It may be less. Like a wave it will return and wash us away again, of that I have no doubt.