Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Jeffrey Rifflard
A father (Foster) and his thirteen-year-old daughter (McKenzie) have lived off the grid for years, leading a tranquil and undisturbed life in a forest park in Portland, Oregon. However, a mistake leads to them being discovered by the authorities, and they are forced to embark on a journey to find somewhere new that they can call home.
When studying screenwriting, one of the supposed golden rules of screenwriting that was always emphasised to me was ‘show don’t tell’, which unfortunately seems to be a forgotten (or even lost) art in mainstream cinema these days as films seem to feel the need to over explain themselves and are so incredibly dumbed down that they have constant expositional dialogue that treats the audience like idiots. Well, thankfully films like Leave No Trace are proof that this art is still very much being kept alive, and this is a stunning film that proves just how wonderfully immersive and engaging a film can be when a filmmaker uses other cinematic tools at their disposal instead of lazily resorting to dialogue or voice over to patronise the hell out of the audience.
Director Granik instead manages to skilfully tell us all we need to know about the film’s two protagonists through showing us their life and through subtle body language, facial expressions and visual cues we are given enough information to then fill in the blanks ourselves, producing a far richer and more emotionally involving cinematic experience that is sadly getting increasingly rare in this day and age. Leave No Trace is a cinematic experience for all the senses, relying heavily on the sound and stunning imagery of the narrative’s settings to immerse the audience into the world of its two protagonists. The wonderful camerawork, Dickon Hinchliffe’s ambient and subtle score, the overall sound design that often captures the sounds of nature and Michael McDonough’s sublime cinematography all work in wonderful tandem to cerate a truly cinematic experience and proof that it is not always a big budget that is required to make a film truly cinematic.
Of course, for a film like this to work it requires great performances, and as the father and daughter Ben Foster and Thomasin Mckenzie both give suitably nuanced performances. Ben Foster gives an air of unpredictability to his character, he is a man of very little words, but it is clear from the look in his eyes and his body language when talking to other people that he suffers from great internal conflict and emotional pain. I have also claimed that unpredictability brings higher levels of engagement, and in the case of Ben Foster’s character we the audience can never be truly sure how he is going to react to the situations the narrative presents to him – all we know is that he is a man with some very deep emotional scars. Newcomer McKenzie is also excellent as his daughter Tom and captures perfectly the devotion she shows to her father, but also her naivety when it comes to the real world and people.
The less said about the plot the better when it comes to a film like Leave No Trace, as it is a film best watched with as little information as possible as each viewer’s experience may well be different, as this is one of those films where the more you put in, the more you get out. My one minor criticism is that some of the narrative developments do at times feel a little contrived and almost naive in the fact everyone they come across is good natured and wants to genuinely help them and have no ulterior motive. Though this may well be part of the main narrative themes in terms of how the protagonists deal with other people, especially how they deal with human kindness, but the cynic in me finds it hard to believe that with the law of averages and human nature considered, they would not come across someone that is not so genuine or kind.
However, my deep routed cynicism about human beings aside, Leave No Trace is stunningly moving and immersive film from start to finish, and what is most refreshing about this film is that it keeps its high standards right until its very moving and satisfying conclusion.
An unforgettable and pure cinematic experience from start to finish; Leave No Trace is a deeply immersive and profoundly moving film from start to finish and undoubtedly one of the very best of 2018.