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.