“It was a rough year.”
This sentiment always begins its annual excursion as December comes to a close; in that tiresome week’s span during which Christmas is behind us and the short-lived joys of new year’s resolutions are ahead, there’s little to consider but the disappointments and shortcomings yielded from the last twelve months. And now, after the close of the last year and the birth of the next, that statement seems especially true. Of course, Ecclesiastes 1:9 remains true in its assertion that there is nothing new under the sun; the moral condition of our culture never has and never will truly improve or regress, it merely substitutes vices to accommodate the newest topic society deems preeminent. Evil has always existed in the same quantity it does now; the modulating factor is man’s comprehension of its sheer magnitude. The problem stems from the fact that as we progress ever onward down the corridors of history, the greater and more terrible this understanding becomes.
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace feels the immense weight of the burden evoked by such an awareness. You see it, or sense it, rather, hiding and festering in the very soul of Will (Ben Foster). He’s one-half of the leading duo, a military veteran whose eyes convey the deep weariness that shrouds his heart and mind. Though this inner torment manifests itself in implied episodes of PTSD-spurred panic, it is not a despair shared by his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two, daughter and father, the motherless and the widower, live a peacefully eremitic existence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, thriving off the land and occasional forays into town.
There’s a quietly ethereal beauty to these opening scenes, foreshadowing the atmospheric and thematic quality of the duration to follow. Granik’s camera is unobtrusive yet confident, secure enough in its own assured competency to refrain from injections of superfluous technical prowess. We observe Will and Tom’s daily routines: cooking wild mushrooms on a hand-constructed solar contraption, cleaning a tidy and homely campsite, enjoying the company of each other in their pure and untainted relationship. Even the safety drills Will frequently orchestrates—precautionary tests implemented in the event of their discovery—feel largely unthreatening, unfolding as they do beneath the lush grandeur of the natural glory surrounding them on all sides. Here, life is simple, tranquil, sheltered: distinctly separate from the harsh cruelty of the real world. Or so it seems.
A case could be made that Leave No Trace advocates for isolation, suggesting the necessity of removing oneself from society to find peace and escape worldly troubles. The film’s first minutes certainly convey such an idea; Will and Tom’s world appears pure, untainted, even Edenic. Their seclusion allows a respite from human nature, it seems. But as the film progresses, Granik begins to paint a different picture.
Early on in the film, the pair are spotted and reported by a well-meaning hiker. Police ascend the mountain and Will’s vigilantly implemented escape drills are thwarted by dogs. He and Tom are informed that their current living arrangement — permanent camping on public land — is illegal, but offered an alternative: a man willing to rent out a small home in exchange for Will’s employment. Seeing no other option, Will accepts, beginning an attempt at something resembling a normal life. He works, she plays and makes friends, they go to church. Tom likes it there and wants to become members. Will isn’t convinced, telling his daughter they go only because it’s what is expected of them. Outsiders mind their own business when they appear normal. It’s in this exchange that the dichotomy between father and daughter are revealed. He is older, wiser, more mature; he’s seen things that have deeply shaken him, disturbed him, ruptured his outlook on humanity. Tom is young, but she lacks the despair that totally engulfs her father. Her innocence is not equated to naiveté, but to hope; she seeks community because the desire for such is inherent to her uncorrupted nature.
This polarity between father and daughter is further unveiled as Leave No Trace progresses onward. The pair, at Will’s resolve, have forsaken the welfare-granted housing and trekked into the woods, wandering away from the grid and drifting further apart from each other. Night sets in and Tom comes close to freezing; adrift and removed from their place both in society and the previously welcoming embrace of nature, chances of survival on a relational sense diminish with the temperature. “What are we going to do now?” Tom asks. “Keep moving,” Will replies. To him, a deeply loving father simply unable to adapt to the life his daughter needs, perpetual flight is the only solution. But this becomes impossible when Will injures himself, losing consciousness and awakening in the house of a stranger. Despite his fear and stubborn denial of community, the kindness of a good Samaritan has saved his life.
In his absence Tom has befriended a neighbor and beekeeper, and in the scene preceding the emotional climax, an exchange perhaps even more thematically effective culminates everything before it. Tom shows her father the hive, wondering at the thousands of insects that cover the wood and their hands, buzzing with life. She looks up at Will, telling him, “They don’t want to hurt you. They want to come up, and land you, and… get to know you.” It’s a gentle rebuke, telling him to accept the fact that he doesn’t have to run from people for the rest of his life. Tom removes her beekeeper suit, extending her hand over the throbbing mass. “You can feel the warmth of the hive,” she says, offering a final plea: forsake winter’s bitter chill. Come inside to where the fire of fellowship roars.
He doesn’t. And it hurts.
But Leave No Trace stands unique in its time for the distaste it holds for despair. 2018 was a dark and trying period, there’s no doubt about it; and the cinematic offerings of the year reflected that. Annihilation, First Reformed, You Were Never Really Here, The House That Jack Built, BlacKkKlansman—all good films in their own right, and all sparked by ferocity, nihilism, and misery, showing with great proficiency the great depravity of humanity. Leave No Trace is by no means ignorantly naive, but it understands and portrays the tragedy of the human condition with grace and hope. The world is a fallen place, but it is being redeemed; its people are broken, but they’re still capable of goodness under grace. Debra Granik’s film shows just how far kindness and compassion can still go, and the sorrow that follows when you’re too blinded by the darkness to see it.