Leave No Trace Shows How to Critique Society—Without Demonizing an Entire System

The Atlantic looks back on the key film moments of 2018, this time a wrenching interview with a survivalist war veteran in Debra Granik’s drama.

Ben Foster in 'Leave No Trace'
Ben Foster in Leave No Trace (Bleecker Street)

Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment. Next up is Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. (Read our previous entries here.)

The most impressive thing about Leave No Trace is that the enemy of the film is not the government. Yes, Debra Granik’s story is about a father, Will (Ben Foster), and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), trying to live away from society, and the way that their dreams are shattered when they’re arrested for trespassing on public land. Will, a traumatized Iraq War veteran, craves isolation and peace above all else, and he chafes at almost any kind of institutional structure. So when he’s taken away from the forest, separated from his daughter, and hauled in front of social services, the whole process should feel monstrous. Somehow, it doesn’t.

Granik is a filmmaker with an incredible gift for conveying characterization cleanly and simply; her camera doesn’t judge, but rather empathizes. It’s likely obvious to the viewer, early on, that Will’s hope for a quiet life off the grid is bound to fail, especially as his daughter grows older and begins seeking a life of her own. It’s equally obvious that Will is going to ignore the orders of the state of Oregon the first chance he gets, even if he’s threatened with imprisonment. Still, soon after he and Tom are taken out of the forest, Granik digs into the specifics of the government’s intervention and the ways in which officials are trying to help. In fully considering the situation from multiple angles, she gives a careful portrait of its intractability.

Once Will is processed, he’s assessed by a social worker named James (Michael J. Prosser), who sits him in front of a computer and has Will take a personality test of sorts. “Respond true/false to each question … There’s 435 questions. If you can’t answer something, you’ve got three seconds, it’ll beep and move on to the next statement,” he explains soothingly, before turning the computer on and departing the room. The test is somewhat less soothing, featuring a halting, robotic voice that utters true-or-false statements like “I enjoy reading articles on crime” and “I have nightmares or troubling dreams.”

Will keeps up at first, but the statements grow more probing and accusatory, even as they’re delivered with the same flatness. “I think about things that are too bad to talk about.” “Things aren’t turning out like the prophets said they would.” “It seems like no one understands me.” Will’s grumpy demeanor quickly crumbles into anguished confusion; Foster, doing career-best work, expresses all of Will’s horror and despair at what he’s being asked with a single mournful stare. He’s someone trying to live a meaningfully detached life; the test’s assumption is, of course, that he’s crazy, angry, or both.

As Will ignores the questions, James comes back in to console him. “You wouldn’t be the first one to have a problem with this test,” the social worker confesses. James is as warm and sympathetic as he can be, but he’s still there to do a job, and the test is what it is—a fruitless, reductive attempt to glean why someone might not want to be part of society. The sequence plays out in an office decorated with forest wallpaper, a facsimile of the environment Will and Tom were just plucked from; it reads like yet another effort to offer comfort while reasserting control.

James and the other social-service workers do their best to find Will and Tom a placement with a rural family that might approximate their old life off the radar, while also keeping them on Oregon’s books. If this entire early section of the film played out malevolently, the rest of Leave No Trace (which sees an increasingly frayed Will taking Tom back into the woods to try and reclaim their former life) wouldn’t work; it’d feel too righteous and pure. Instead, all the tricky ideas Granik wants to explore are laid out from the start, so that the later acts can wrestle with them. The world that Will is trying to escape isn’t evil, but even at its most benevolent, it has no real understanding of how to handle people like him, and vice versa. Thanks to Granik’s sensitivity, Leave No Trace is a humane attempt to grapple with that alienation.

Previously: Hereditary

Next Up: Mission: Impossible – Fallout