Director Debra Granik’s filmography is short, but accomplished. To date, her biggest achievement was the 2010 film, Winter’s Bone, her second feature, which earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay for Granik, Supporting Actor for John Hawkes, and Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence. The film is widely regarded as the movie that launched Lawrence’s career.
Personally, I wasn’t a fan. It was beautifully shot, and Lawrence worked well with the material – about a girl searching for her father in meth-rich Missouri backwoods. But for me, it was just boring story-wise, and it felt like the overall thesis was that Missouri was a shithole. I’ve driven through the place, I know. I didn’t need a two-hour movie to drive the point home. Just get outside St. Louis and look at the billboards every other mile that tell you you’re going to Hell and the message gets across.
But now Granik is back with her first film since that breakthrough eight years ago, with only her third career feature, Leave No Trace. The themes of isolation are still there from Winter’s Bone, as is the unique and troubled relationship between a father and daughter. But here, the story is – to me, at least – much more compelling, heartfelt, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful, carried by two masterful lead performances. It’s a near perfect odyssey of emotion, fear, and the importance of community.
Set in the woods of the Pacific Northwest (first Oregon, later Washington), the film features the story of Will, a veteran widower with PTSD, played by a never better Ben Foster. Together with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, daughter of Miranda Harcourt), he squats in a public park near Portland, living off the land and off the grid. His bond with Tom is essential and absolute. He has nightmares, but for the most part, he seems well-adjusted in the woods. He teaches Tom survival skills as well as academic knowledge, and the pair are far from hermits, walking into town regularly for food and supplies (including VA prescriptions he doesn’t take, opting to sell them to other homeless vets in tents around the forest). He’s just simply more at peace in the outdoors, where he feels unencumbered.
That all changes when Tom is accidentally spotted by a jogger, who alerts the authorities, leading to Will and Tom being apprehended for criminal trespass. No charges are filed, and the social workers are amazed at how advanced Tom is academically compared to kids her age in school. Still, they wish to provide Tom with an opportunity for a normal life, so they arrange to have the pair move to a local Christmas tree farm, where the owner has a guest house he’s willing to let them use in exchange for Will working the farm.
I spent my high school years in upstate New York, and one of my favorite annual traditions was going to the tree farm to cut down our tree every year. I confess I got nostalgic during the scenes spent at the farm in this movie, because I know from experience that Granik and company got this bit right. There are individuals who cut down trees, there are trees shipped in and out via helicopter and truck to outlying areas and cities that don’t have such land space, and of course, there’s the twine machine. When I was 14, I was fascinated about how a simple machine could condense an entire tree to such a small size that it could be loaded in a truck or strapped to a luggage rack. I’ve even worked one a couple of times. It’s one of the simple joys in life.
Anyway, despite the minimalist accommodations, Will still feels trapped. In a noteworthy moment, he looks into his bedroom, sees a television on the dresser, and promptly hides it in the closet. “At least we can still think our own thoughts,” he tells himself and Tom, but it’s clear that he feels claustrophobic and constrained just by being indoors.
Tom, on the other hand, enjoys the experience, as it’s the first real opportunity she has to interact with other people outside of set situations like going to a store. She befriends the teenage son of one of the workers who raises a rabbit for show as part of his 4-H activities. She does favors for the farmer housing her. She tends to some horses. In essence, she’s becoming a well-adjusted teenager exploring the world around her. The irony of course is that her father wants/needs to isolate her in the open wilderness to keep himself sane.
Before you know it, they’re on the road again, hitchhiking to Washington and into another wooded area, where the terrain is unfamiliar and the surroundings are more dangerous. It also provides another opportunity for Will and Tom to assimilate into a community, and due to an injury, Will can’t run away so fast.
The whole affair is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. You know Will wants to do right by his daughter, but his mental state only allows him to do so much, go so far, before he can no longer function. Tom loves her father, wants to take care of him, but she also has to assert her own individuality, as well as her desire to branch out and be part of a cohesive unit of people. There’s a beautiful sequence of scenes where Tom learns about beekeeping that serves as a perfect – if somewhat obvious – visual metaphor for their entire predicament.
It’s a lovely contradiction, because both characters are given their own agency. Neither of them is necessarily right or wrong in their approach, and both of them have unbreakable needs that the other can’t provide. Yet, their love for each other is absolute and equally uncompromising. This is a dynamic where neither one can see the forest from the trees, figuratively and sometimes literally.
From a technical aspect, the film features some amazing scenery. I couldn’t help but silently chuckle to myself, thinking of a line from Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1: “EVERYTHING’S SO GREEN!” There are several similarities in shot selection between this and Winter’s Bone, but whereas the former focused on darkness and dankness, this film goes out of its way to be as bright as possible, even in rainstorms and snowy conditions. Even the night shots include well-placed flashlights (and one scene with some very inefficient candle wasting) to keep the light going. And of course, there are myriad shots to grant a contrast of space to keep with the paradoxical dynamic of the two leads. A lot of effort is given to make the outdoors seems as tight and constricting as possible, while more confined spaces like RVs and the farm house are framed with wider lenses to make the compact area seem much more open. It’s a very nice touch.
Not to be outdone is the sound quality. The overall sound mix is very well done, as much of Will and Tom’s interactions need to be silent to avoid detection. There are so many quiet moments that any intrusion of a loud noise becomes a plot point, like a gunshot, or an ATV engine, or Tom just yelling out for her father. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is wonderful in its subtlety, and there’s a decent song that plays during the credits that I can’t find online for the life of me.
Also, there’s a dog named Willie Nelson. I mean, how can you go wrong?
So in summation, see this fucking movie. It’s in limited release right now, and only brought in about $250K in its opening weekend, ranking 22nd in the box office rankings. But the film also carries a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now, and for good reason, so when it gets a wider release, make the effort to see it. This is the best work Debra Granik has put out so far, anchored by two great performances, one from a relative newcomer, and one from a seasoned character actor at his peak. The story is beautiful on all levels, and the technical elements are superb. I’m one day removed from my mid-year top 10, and this first entry for the second half of 2018 has already cracked it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What aspect of rural life would you like to see in a movie? Is there seriously any better name for a truck driver’s dog than Willie Nelson? Let me know!