Leave No Trace: Rural Beauty And Trauma’s Silent Screams

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.

BELOW ARE SPOILERS FOR LEAVE NO TRACE

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.

Advertisements

Room: trauma, love and beauty

Giving meaning to tragedy and trauma is dangerous ground. Whether you’re a preacher, a writer, a journalist, a film-maker or just somebody trying to walk alongside a person experiencing trauma, the traps are the same. Say too much and you risk the trite, the trivial, the weightless; say too little and you risk a silence which is filled by worst imaginings. Try to find meaning and you flirt with missing the point, not doing justice to the pain; try to let events speak for themselves and you come close to nihilism. There’s so much that can go wrong it can feel like it’s safest to do nothing if you don’t have to, unless events don’t force themselves on you. Trauma is distant to most of us; but as I found out when my when friend was murdered by terrorists, that approach is ultimately of no use. Sometimes the worst case happens, the unthinkable becomes your daily concern, the unimaginable your lived experience.

This is the territory we are in with Room, the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s  massively successful novel (an adaption written by the novelist). I had little knowledge of the book personally, but the film-makers want us to be in no doubt as to where this film goes – the bare facts may make this a hard sell, but the publicity wants us to believe that this will affirm life without patronising or dismissing pain. It’s the story of a young woman (faultlessly played by Brie Larson) confined in one room for seven years where she’s repeatedly raped by her captor; she inhabits the room with her five-year old son to whom she gave birth in the room as a result of the rapes. Jack’s world is one in four walls; it’s all he’s ever known, all he’s ever seen save for what he sees through the single window in the form of a skylight and the television. This is a child’s eye view film; it is through him we perceive the abuse which we never see; it’s through him we learn of his mother’s past life on the outside; it’s with him that we eventually journey to the outside world in the film’s final third.

Jack’s mum has helped him create a fantastical world within the four walls of his existence; around his fifth birthday she tries to explain the outside world to him. He’s disbelieving, but gradually grasps towards something resembling truth. When he attempts to affect their escape he’s just about aware enough to cope with the revelation that there are other people and animals and places.

We know there are real-world equivalents to this fictional story, but still this film is trying to imagine the unimaginable. By all rights it should be inadequate or trite or tasteless or just plain unbelievable. In trying to make a film that isn’t a thriller or a drama or comedy but instead a hymn to love and relationships, the film-makers should be falling flat on their faces. Instead they’ve given us a genuinely unforgettable, overwhelming and transcendent film that helps us rediscover ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It finds beauty in the desperately ordinary thanks to some remarkable cinematography that makes the small room both a place of captivity and a universe to discover; the relationships are perfectly drawn and life-affirming thanks to Brie Larson’s and Jacob Tremblay’s (the son, Jack) achingly beautiful performances. The depths of their relationship are unfathomable yet also utterly recognisable to anyone who has ever loved. The startlingly brilliant music haunts, prods, pushes and finally engulfs. We never see the rape or abuse take place, but we’re left in no doubt as to its reality, its inescapability. Yet we’re never without hope or beauty, and ultimately the film lets us and the characters find life and love in new, beautiful and subtle ways.

There’s much to say about Room, but at the end of the day there’s little I can properly articulate. I can think of maybe one other film (Pan’s Labyrinth  – in many ways very different, in others very similar) that has come close to making me feel as moved, alive, tearful and full of wonder as this one. It’s a rare work of art that leaves you speechless yet desperate to talk, but Room is one of them.

I rated this movie 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 10/10 on imdb.com

Too much reality

I need to tell you how I’m feeling today. I should warn you that some of you will not like it. Some of you will think I need to get some perspective. Some of you will tilt your head to the side and lower your eyes. Some of you will get angry. A few may find common ground with me. I will speak with unvarnished truth about how I feel today, and if it angers you … well, maybe you need to get angry.

I will not stay feeling the way I am about to describe forever. At least I don’t think I will. It is where I was yesterday, am today and probably will be for a few more days. And that is the last qualification that I will make. If you are worried for your sensitive eyes or ears, then look away now.

I am boiling with anger. You know, most of you, that over two years ago my friend was murdered by terrorists in Kenya. In the course of doing my job (a church leader), I had to put my own grief on hold; the result of this is a series of symptoms with which I still live, which I’m told add up to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I didn’t think you could get that if you weren’t present, but it turns out you can. I jump out of my skin if someone kicks the dog bowl. A word, a phrase, a weather pattern, a noise, a story can send me spiralling into anxiety and grief. It can not affect me for weeks or months and then it will besiege me until my resources are starved.

Yesterday (Saturday) I was starved. I woke to news of the Paris terror attacks; within an hour my heart and soul were back where I was two years ago, receiving details from inside a besieged shopping centre, comforting a fearful widow-to-be, getting fateful news. Eventually, like many others, I took to social media to both express myself and see if I could find some solace. I found some; I also found people asking why we weren’t grieving also for the many killed in attacks elsewhere – Beirut, for example. And on it went; apparently we who were moved – moved by people slaughtered doing what I like doing, going to rock concerts and football matches – especially by this, don’t care for Arab lives. Apparently we’re over Westernised. Apparently, one person told me, I shouldn’t bring my grief to social media.

The truth is I can’t take it. I have my limits. If I processed all the death and destruction in the world the same way, I would not be able function. I would sit and shake and cry and shout and scream until I couldn’t any longer. Yesterday was almost unbearable at times; I only got going when a 6-year old insisted on a cuddle … now. Today was better because it had to be – I had a job to do.

T S Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. How right he was. I can’t. You can’t either; you who sanctimoniously and self-righteously tell me I should be moved in the same way about everything. You can’t take it. If you felt like I felt yesterday for even an hour you would cease to meaningfully function. Have you tossed and turned overnight, wondering if your friend is safe, or a hostage or lying blood-strewn on a shopping mall floor? Have you been in the room when that phone call has been taken? Have you had to lead people on a journey of forgiving this?

We can’t take it all. We just can’t. We have our limits.

And don’t you dare, don’t you even think of citing Jesus. Even He, faced with the full weight of every moment of suffering, every evil deed, every murder and angry word; even He cried out in fear, asked for another way, sweat blood and asked why God had abandoned Him.

Of course Arab lives matter, the same as French or British or Kenyan or Burundian or Rwandan or Syrian or Lebanese or Palestinian or Israeli. But I can’t take it all, and if you say you can then you’re self-deceiving liar. You need to go to some war zones, some terror attack malls, some grieving families to get some perspective on yourself. Then tell me how much reality I should be able to take.

Paris moves me because I’ve walked its streets. Because I’ve been to more rock concerts than I can count and more football matches than I can remember. I can imagine myself there, in the midst of a carnage I can imagine only too well because of what I know from the inside.

So when you tell me, and people like me, that I must care equally … you do not know what you ask.

For the love of Christ, let us shake, mourn, grieve, cry, grow angry for a while. In time we will return to something resembling equilibrium.

We couldn’t do this every time, because we are human.

And if that’s such a sin, then we’re in more trouble than we know.

On un-prayed prayers being answered

Some revelations are dramatic and quiet at the same time. Sometimes we look so hard for solutions or healing that we almost miss the opportunity when it sidles up to us and walks with us rather than arriving with a trumpet blast. Think the after the event awareness of the road to Emmaus, Mary assuming he’s a gardener or the blind man seeing walking trees. Not all answers to prayer are even to ones we’re conscious of praying.

Late in the evening one night last week I was lying in bed reading a novel. It was the latest Shardlake novel, a series of Tudor-England set stories which are rightly praised as much for their psychological realism as their historical truthfulness and plot twists. They may wear the clothes of thrillers and crime, but underneath they are finely wrought character pieces about people you feel like you know and understand.

In the preceding novel the central character – Shardlake, a lawyer – found himself aboard the great Tudor ship the Mary Rose. This was a magnificent construction, by far the greatest English ship of its era and the pride of Henry VIII’s fleet. It sank in battle against the French, and this was where our hero found himself in the midst of one his typically brilliant stories, as personal as it was grand in scale.

The novel I was reading last week took place a year or so later. An incidental part of the narrative was that Shardlake was now clearly suffering from what we would call post-traumatic stress (PTSD), though obviously that terminology wasn’t used in the book. This pricked up my ears as a medical professional I am seeing for treatment thinks I may be experiencing some PTSD in relation to a couple of things, not least the death of my friend and church member at the hands of terrorists in Nairobi a year and a half ago as well as being on the receiving end of an extended period of workplace bullying. I wondered if I might learn a thing or two.

Shardlake’s PTSD is quite different to mine; I primarily experience intense anxiety, he that (in stressful situations) the ground below him was pitching and yawing like the sinking ship had. At the point in the story I had reached, he was attending a ceremonial event at which ships were firing cannon in honour of a visitor; so intense were his flashbacks that he had to leave. On the way home he realised that so wound up had he been by the event and his flashbacks that he had never said a goodbye to the friends whom he had lost that day. The novel, in one simple paragraph, records Shardlake saying a simple goodbye in his mind, and seeing his symptoms instantly lift.

This rang an insistent, clear but gentle, bell. When our friend had died I had been necessarily busy – arranging, doing, pastoring, organising. Then I recovered. My position as pastor, as one of the ‘professionals’ at the funeral service meant that I simply never said goodbye.

So as I lay in bed, book in had, I breathed a simple goodbye in a house otherwise filled with sleep. The previously crushing anxiety didn’t completely disappear, but it did abate. A lot. A weight had lifted, and I continued with life. Which in this instant meant another couple of chapters, then sleep.

The next morning the anxiety remains, but it’s back in control, in its place.

I hadn’t been praying for release; I hadn’t been thinking about it or reading the Bible. God just graciously sidled up to me and spoke through an author who I suspect but don’t know for certain is an atheist – he’s certainly cynical and weary when it comes to religion. I, like everyone, need to say goodbye; so when the chance came when I was on one level unprepared but on another more ready than ever before.

Looking for something? Maybe you need to stop looking.