Review – ‘Leave No Trace’ buries its themes under slow-burn storytelling

Poster for 2018 drama Leave No Trace

Genre: Drama
Certificate: PG
UK Release Date: 29th June 2018
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Debra Granik
Writer: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Jeff Kober, Dana Millican, Alyssa Lynn, Ryan Joiner
Synopsis: A military veteran and his daughter living out in the Oregon wilderness are forced to enter modern society when their unique way of living is discovered by the authorities.



There’s at least 10 minutes of screen time in Leave No Trace before the modern world appears. After following Ben Foster‘s Will and his daughter Tom – played by brilliant one to watch Thomasin McKenzie – around the woods for several scenes, the sight of grey buildings and noisy cars is a jarring aberration. It’s a powerful mission statement from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, whose latest movie deals with the idea of the outsider, living on the edges of society in an attempt to avoid the systems that made him.

Will was a soldier and is now suffering from PTSD, so has separated himself and his teenage girl from society, living in the wilderness of Oregon, surviving off the land and limited cash he makes from flogging his medication. A stranger in the woods glimpses Tom one day and alerts the authorities, who demand that the duo become part of the real world, albeit in scenarios that allow them reasonable freedom and connection with nature, including on a Christmas tree farm.

Although Foster’s character is nominally the lead here, it’s obvious that Granik is more interested in Thomasin McKenzie. She introduced Jennifer Lawrence to the world with Winter’s Bone and, this time around, McKenzie does a tremendous job as the focal point of the story. She’s devoted to her father, but she is intrigued by the prospect of adapting and integrating into the modern world – a clear evocation of the youthful willingness to embrace new ideas, while our parents are devoted to their own, preconceived ideas. It’s compelling to watch her journey, which transpires as a genuine character arc rather than a mere idea.

This is less true of Foster who, while solid, has a character that has a considerably more minimal journey. He’s a man who has fled into isolation in order to run from the system that turned him into who he is. There’s always something for him to run from and the movie deals with the question of whether this will lead to him pushing his beloved daughter away.

Unfortunately, the rest of Leave No Trace isn’t quite as compelling as McKenzie’s character. Granik allows the movie to unfold at a slow pace, free of major exposition, and although that allows for the characters to take centre stage, it also pares down the drama. This is particularly true of the middle section, which has a noticeable sag in between the initial wonderment of the introduction to their world and the intriguing evolution of McKenzie throughout the second half of the narrative. In reaching for subtlety, Granik often lands a glancing blow rather than a knockout punch.

Leave No Trace is an interesting and thought-provoking movie that asks real questions about the established systems of modern society, but occasionally loses sight of that in favour of meandering storytelling. Granik’s style is most accomplished in the early, wilderness-set stages, but doesn’t fit as well when she tries to convey the way these characters struggle to fit into a different, more conventional world. The characters are square pegs being forced into round holes, and it often feels like the director suffers the same fate.


Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

There’s a lot to appreciate about Leave No Trace, which sees Debra Granik deliver a defiantly introspective look at how oppressive the modern world can seem to those living on its fringes. However, its desire to keep things low-key sometimes minimises its drama. Ben Foster delivers another solid performance, but it’s newcomer Thomasin McKenzie who emerges as a real rising star.


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