A film that forgoes action for reaction.
Ben Foster – known for playing intricate, damaged men, continues the trend as Will a war vet who lives in the forests of Oakland with his daughter, Tom.
Thankfully Michael McDonough’s camerawork doesn’t shy away from the up-close grimaces and twitches of Will, who spends most of the film stuck inside his own head. The invasive shots McDonough manages to steal speaks volumes to what each, largely silent, character might be thinking at any given moment. McDonough, who paired up with Director Debra Granik on Winter’s Bone back in 2010, has an impressive resume of films that have allowed him to cut teeth on capturing bleak environs and his efforts are duly noted in what is sure to be awards bait later in the year. Despite top billing, Foster plays more of a secondary character. His actions propel the story into motion, before he himself takes a backseat and the doe-eyed Thomasin McKenzie grabs rein. Rather than outshine her begrudged co-star, McKenzie works in tandem with Foster to create a see-saw effect with the audiences’ loyalties. At one point, the monotonous heavy farm labour Foster’s Will is shunted into feels like an atrocity compared with his former forest freedom. However, the trappings and home comforts afforded by temporary government housing equally make us root for McKenzie’s Tom and the opportunities an intelligent girl like herself could reap as a result of societal re-integration. Extended scenes shot in damp, icy woodland would have been no easy feat for McDonough and his camera team. The logistics and audio issues that come with filming outdoors have been skilfully overcome – the cicadas and wind never drowning out what Granik intends us to hear and see. Seasoned film-goers will spy the ending at the beginning of the third act. It’s nevertheless a suitable conclusion to a film that could have forayed into more conventional outcomes for the bedraggled father-daughter pair. While a lack of action may numb some audience members, Granik’s real achievement is making viewers genuinely ponder each character’s fate – despite knowing so little about them. A lush, yet raw, look at living off grid and the arguments surrounding modern day parental obligations. Leave No Trace sits somewhere between Captain Fantastic and the free-spirited bleakness of Into The Wild.
4 out of 5 stars.
Reviewed by Nicholas Brookland
Leave No Trace screens as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Details nziff.co.nz