Leave No Trace (2018), directed by Debra Granik

leavenotrac“Leave No Trace” is an instruction to humans in regards to land. As one enters a space, the phrase requests that you take with you all signs of your being there upon departure. The “trace” often refers to litter: crisp packets and plastic water bottles that are thoughtlessly tossed after their contents has been consumed, cigarettes smoked to their brown and speckled filter, bleached white toilet role now soiled and soggy by a river bank. To leave no such things behind implies that one will, inevitably, move on to another space. Another trace one must not leave could be the trace of one’s body, a desire line cut through shrubbery, foot prints, hair, or scent. Such somatic traces could reveal your previous or present location, a potential issue were one trying to hide. A trace, it seems, is a small part of a bigger whole. It is not synechodcal, does not represent the larger picture, but alludes to it, is connected to it if even by the thinnest thread. In nursery school, children make pictures by tracing a bold image through the nearly-transparent sheet of tracing paper, creating a map of lines with ease. A trace is an object left behind, and an action of repetition, as well as a trajectory. A police force might find the trace of a person at a crime scene, and then use it to trace back to a specific person.

In Debra Granik’s 2018 film Leave No Trace, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) explore several concepts that surround the title. The film begins with them secretly living in a national park in Portland, Oregon, collecting rain water, hitting rocks together to create fire and occasionally going into town to gather supplies from a veteran’s centre, a supermarket, and a pharmacy. The pair are content with their way of life, despite its difficulties which appear fairly minimal– at least in a comparison with the stress and difficulties of “regular” life (my comparison, not necessarily one contained within the text). We soon learn that Will is a veteran, not only because they visit the centre, but also because the film alludes to his PTSD – most noticeably when the two are sleeping in their tent. In the night, Will wakes with a startle at the disconcerting hum of helicopters sounds operating somewhere between the night-time air and Will’s sleeping head. We can thus draw a line of logic between Will and Tom’s off-grid living and Will’s past. Though never specifically given as a reason for their alternative way of life, their choice to be isolated seems intimately linked with a rejection of society that stems from Will’s trauma. As we learn throughout the film, though Tom is for the most part content with the lifestyle, for Will the detachment from normal society is – like trauma – a compulsive space he must continually return to.

Part of their attempt to survive in the national park – which is not sustained past the first quarter of the film’s duration – includes covering their bodily traces and tracks, efficiently hiding in the mud, the moss, the greenery. When they are found by a team of police with dogs, Will and Tom are briefly separated. Their bond is quiet, loving beyond a need for constant dialogue, and as an audience their relationship is communicated clearly, not despite but perhaps because of their unspeaking, their comfort marked in the ease of silence. Though the father and daughter struggle throughout the film to remain together in their search for a wilderness within which to carve a home, the film is remarkable in that every person they encounter – though not necessarily understanding them and their desires – none the less attempts to help them in some way. Whether this is a social worker wanting to house them, a truck driver pulling Tom aside to ask if she is ok, or people who let them stay in their remote trailer community in the North.

I cried throughout the film, particularly triggered when Tom welled up, the deep sadness writ instantly across her face, a dimple in her chin quivering before the tears. By the end of the film, Will and Tom realise that they love each other enough to let the other lead the life they are compelled to: lives that are no longer matched. Whilst Tom stays in the trailer community, Will returns to the wilderness. In a poignant and heart-breaking scene, Tom sums up the difference that they must both acknowledge: “The thing that’s wrong with you is not wrong with me.”

But what does it mean to return to the land? To verdant habitat, to cold and warmth, to wet and dry, determined by the earth and sky? To allow the atmosphere to be near to your body, inside of you, part of you? To not remain in the sealing of a brick or wood or glass domestic space that protects but also excludes you from elemental thrusts? To exit from the technology that so often permeates our lives, to be released from a grip of modern mechanisms? And what does it mean as a specifically American notion to return to such a place? A country that centres much of the idea of its legacy on this here land, land of the free, a vast and diverse land replete with sprawling greens, seemingly endless deserts, and built up metropolitan areas? Leave No Trace posits this desire as neither utopic nor disastrous, always verging between sustainability and fragility, satisfaction and longing. The difficulties are acknowledged alongside the beauty, and neither are shown to suffer because of it. In these ways, Leave No Trace is one of the most sensitive films that considers such a return in recent American cinema.

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