One of the insidious traps of depression and trauma is that just when you most need connection with others who understand at the deepest levels what you are going through, you find yourself all the more desperate to isolate yourself. It’s a cruel trap to be caught in, and the only hope for exit is to either ask for help or to stumble across someone who’s in the same position as you.
This is the territory occupied by Leave No Trace, the latest film from director Debra Granik, who in 2010 gave us the remarkable Winter’s Bone, a slow-burn mystery set amidst the trauma of inexorable rural poverty – a film most famous for effectively launching the career of Jennifer Lawrence. The seeds of Lawrence’s success were evident in Winter’s Bone; Leave No Trace features another remarkable central performance from a young woman in the shape of Thomasin McKenzie, and it would be no surprise if her career followed a similar trajectory to Lawrence after this.
It’s another film more concerned with suggestion than statement, with relationship rather than plot at the forefront. That’s not to say nothing happens in the film – in fact the film’s events are world-shaping for the protagonists. A teenage girl and her father live, by choice, off-grid in an Oregon urban park; they suddenly find their world disturbed by outside forces, setting in motion a series of events and decisions which will forever alter their lives and their relationship. The reasons for their decision are never made fully clear; we know the mother of the family has died, but we don’t know the details of how or when. It gradually becomes apparent that the father, Will, is an army veteran harbouring deep pain from his service – but this isn’t ever fully explained. Even before life is disrupted, there are hints that they are always besieged by the possibility of disturbance; early on a pack of dogs surrounds their tent at night, attempting to claw at them through the canvass. They have to hide from police at work in the park; a trip to the city for supplies is presented as akin to a trip to an alien planet, the angular, surfaces displayed with the sheen of futurism.
Events force father and daughter from place to place, never settling – leaving places under cover of dark or taking advantage of moments of isolation to move on. Animals and their homes are important throughout this – a beehive, a rabbit briefly escaped, returned to its owner, a spider’s web – a hint of what the central characters are looking for but seemingly unable to achieve. Finally, they seem to do so – a small, isolated community within which the daughter at least seems to find a place of understanding. She assumes her father has too; but she’s wrong. Where she seems to have found what her trauma had caused her to lose, he hasn’t. He needs to keep going, keep looking, keep hoping. His buried trauma seems to compel him to a final act of isolation, wilful and chosen, potentially keeping at bay the very relationship that was keeping him intact. Is his final choice selfish, necessary, an act of self-harm, or all three of those? We’re invited to make our own decision.
The gentle but unmistakeable power of Leave No Trace lies in its long silences, which communicate much about what the characters are unable to express and into which we are invited to project our own decisions and suggestions. Are our own traumas and fears as self-isolating as those of the central characters? Whilst the off-grid life initially seems idyllic, the fact that it is effectively a life on the run from being disturbed is not presented as a romantic or idyllic choice. It’s rather the choice of people unable or unwilling to communicate their deepest needs – perhaps even unable to articulate them for themselves, let alone anyone else. Thus, for all its rural beauty – and the cinematography and sound-design really do foreground this beauty – Leave No Trace presents us with an eloquent parable of the isolation that trauma and mental health forces its victims into; the film gives voice to the silent pain of those needing gently healing community yet unable to fully embrace it.
This is a beautiful, gentle film; but one that is no less significant for its understated nature. Will we allow the voiceless to speak, and be comfortable enough to allow their silence to speak interrupt our ham-fisted attempts to fill the void? And what are our trauma and fears, which push us into isolation at the very moment we most need relationship? It’s a film with more questions than answers, and all the better for it.