“Leave No Trace”: Erasing Oneself Without Losing Oneself

It’s not hard to imagine the premise of Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” reduced to the bold headlines of a newspaper: “Daughter Raised in Wilderness By Ex-Vet Father, Found in Local Park.” Like all newspaper headlines, it bastardizes the literally inexpressible complexity of the situation to make for good story. The hypothetical title capitalizes off of our natural predilections for uncomplicated and perversely satisfying moral judgements. Upon seeing such a title, for example, a reader would probably reflexively experience pangs of pity for both the daughter and the father followed by a sort of moral contempt for the father’s seemingly selfish behavior. Rarely does anyone try to look beyond the surface of these cases to get to the infinitely more nuanced truth of the matter. Granik’s sensitive and intimate movie tells us the real story behind the seductive headline.

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and Will (Ben Foster) are a father-and-daughter duo living on the fringes of society in the seclusion of Oregon’s forests. They spend their days playing chess and gathering resources to ensure survival on a day-by-day basis. The circumstances that lead to their bare lifestyle are largely left to guesswork. We know the father fought in war and suffers from a form of PTSD and we know the mother is totally out of the picture, but what exactly compels them to lead a monastic lifestyle is left mysterious throughout. The father tries his best to raise his daughter without leaving her developmentally-stunted and brain-dead, and by all appearances he’s not unsuccessful. She’s quick-witted and independent-minded but her face is pale and angular, as though she’s been through things no 13-year-old should have to go through. There’s a sort of glassy vacancy in her eyes that signals something essential is lacking. On some level, the father knows there’s something inherently wrong with their lifestyle but he tries to justify this wrongness by over-preparing his daughter on all matters intellectual and tooth-and-claw survival. He carves an intellectually formidable, cunning survivalist out of his daughter but she can only function in the sheltered urban wilderness.

The daughter does not know anything outside her woodland sanctuary. She feels deprived in some vague way, but she also feels a loyalty and a gratefulness to her father which prevent her from venturing beyond the confines of her nomadism. When an anonymous runner tips-off the police about the pair’s whereabouts, they’re manhandled through the U.S. bureaucratic system of standardized tests and callous interrogations. This is an unwelcome intrusion to the duo, who are used to living life on their own rugged terms. They begrudgingly resign themselves to a contract whereby they can still live together if they integrate themselves back into civilization. The movie does the best job I’ve ever seen of depicting the ensuing cultural dysphoria. In contrast to the lush greenery of their former habitat, the industrialized world seems crude and alien and ever-encroaching. There’s something mechanical and robotic about socialized humans living in artificially-constructed domiciles, dutifully going about their daily lives like ants in a colony.

In the face of all this, the father projects a cool composure but we can tell he’s going haywire beneath the exterior. Initially, the daughter seems equally tortured but when she finds a reprieve from her loneliness with the belonging she feels in a community, she gains a growing inkling of the emotional needs which isolated living cannot fulfill. For the first time in her life, she begins to feel that she has to make sense of the world without the pathologically overprotective guidance of her father. The film delicately and complexly portrays the girl as she goes through this transitional period. Feelings of reverence and awe for her father gradually become replaced by feelings of pity and resentment as she comes to realize that she and only she alone can determine what’s best for her. The story may be highly specific, but the sorts of coming-of-age problems she has to contend with are universal.

And yet, it’s not a didactic coming-of-age story. If you had to distill the movie down to sweeping terms, it’s about the wounds that have become so deeply entrenched in some of our souls that they’ve become indivisible from who we are. We go through our lives trying to silently remedy these wounds, all the while hiding them from others because we know that the wounds’ contours are so personal that no one else would possibly be able to understand if we tried to articulate their nature with our hopelessly crude words. The movie is about a man deeply affected by wounds which are invisible to those around him. His wounds have become so all-encompassing and all-consuming that he’s become a slave to them. The only solution he can conceive of is to erase himself from the needling eyes of the public, which cannot help but misinterpret and misjudge the contents of his ailing soul. When he is reunited with nature, he feels dissolved amidst the discreet throb of natural life around him. It’s the only anesthetic to his torments, which can be sedated but not eradicated. But by dulling himself to his pain, he becomes increasingly distanced from his own self. His daughter is perceptive enough to realize that over the years, he’s become a faint outline of the person he used to be. Her woodland-bound upbringing has endowed her with an intuitive grasp of the incommunicable inner workings of people’s souls. The stuff that binds father and daughter feels telepathic and inseparable.

The film itself sort of hovers above the characters, carefully noticing all the subtle and not-so-subtle changes that they gradually undergo. It’s the sort of sublimely subtle acting where every slight facial expression and every subtle intonation keeps you on the edge of your seat.

There’s a prevailing trend in movies about wounded interiors and hardened, dysfunctional exteriors and how the barriers are eventually broken down in triumphant salvation. This movie offers no such easy resolution. The deeper the film delves into its characters’ lives, the more we become aware of how impenetrably complex they are.


Playing@the Museum of Fine Arts

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