“We can still think our own thoughts.”
Leave No Trace follows struggling war vet Will as he lives off the grid with his daughter, Tom. It kinda sounds like Captain Fantastic, the wonderful 2016 film starring Viggo Mortensen – but apart from two bearded men living in the woods, it’s completely different. Leave No Trace could be an over-the-top story but it plays it low-key and is all the better for it.
When we meet them, Will and Tom are living off the grid, in a Portland national park. They do venture out now and again, for supplies and so Will can collect his PTSD medication to sell on for cash. It’s hinted at (and later made explicit) that Will is a veteran. The film is, in part, a critical look at the effects of combat on a person – with Will experiencing lots of negative aftereffects of the war, like PTSD, nightmares, and panic attacks.
But at its core, the film is about a father and daughter. A mother is mentioned once, early on, but it’s evident that she is no longer in the picture. And though Will prepares Tom on how to survive, how to escape, and how to hide, the film doesn’t go down the hippy survivalist route that Captain Fantastic did. It’s more real. Sure they eat and cook wild mushrooms, but they also pop out of hiding to go shopping and get supplies – even chocolate. Tom is a real kid, and though she is advanced, she behaves like one. She wants a real life, wants friends and wants to do normal kid stuff (like chicken grooming classes – but c’mon it is rural America). It’s here where the cracks start to form between Will and Tom, as we come to realise that being dragged across the country is not what both characters want. Thomasin Mckenzie is flawless as Tom, as she moves from being reliant on her father to realising that he is perhaps broken, and that his best interests are not hers.
The pair is soon forcibly removed from their home and from here the film ostensibly becomes a road movie as the two of them travel from the safety of Oregon to the cold woodland of Washington State. And man, this film really makes me want to visit America. Leave No Trace, to me seems like a love letter to America, or at least it’s rural side. Perhaps it’s more of an ode to an America of the past, where people could catch a bus across the country, or hitch a ride with a friendly truck driver, or live in an affable community where people play the guitar and sing together.
One of the most interesting things about the film is the host of characters they encounter on this journey. From the truck driver with a dog called Willie Nelson, to the RV park owner who lets the pair stay, to the army medic who patches Will up. Leave No Trace reminds you that there are people like that out there, so despite the film’s difficult subject matter, it is a wholly life-affirming story which might just restore your faith in the kindness of strangers.
Leave No Trace definitely has something to say about, and is highly critical of, a few things. It wants you to see the social services system from the point of view of the people inside it – as they are forced to complete inane and lengthy tests and are separated from one another, you question if what they’re doing is really the best thing for people like Will and Tom. And as mentioned before, the film is concerned with the treatment of veterans. Will’s PTSD isn’t improved by drugs or traditional methods and the films’ ending suggests that perhaps there are unconventional ways to help these people – in Will’s case perhaps him being in the wilderness isn’t the worst thing? He is at peace and can function. Or perhaps it is saying that Will is broken and is too far gone to return to civilian life. Either way, the film leaves it up to the audience to decide.
Leave No Trace really is excellent. It could have been a lot more melodramatic, but it’s handled in a subtle and restrained way. Ben Foster continues to show just what an interesting and captivating actor he can be, and it’s a breakthrough performance for Thomasin Mckenzie. It probably won’t do great in cinemas, but catch it on a big screen if you can. If not, make sure to check it out when it’s streaming.
Reviewed by Jack