Thursday, July 26, 2018

Leave No Trace Leaves A Major Impression Through Masterful Uses of Subtlety

Leave No Trace is a movie as quiet and beautiful as the forest that the lead characters call home. Yes, Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) reside in the middle of a forest separated from the rest of the world, per the wishes of Will who wants nothing to do with modern society. The initial scenes of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini's screenplay goes through great pains to demonstrate what kind of day-to-day life these two carry out while being so distant from the rest of the world. We also get to see how the two help each other, with Will teaching Tom various lessons about surviving out in the wilderness as well giving her a general education while Tom helps her father cope with symptoms stemming from his intense case of PTSD.

It's in these introductory sequences that Granik and Rosellini subtly establish just how long Will and Tom have come to rely on just one another for guidance and support out here, the rapport between the duo in any given situation is well established by this juncture. When Will awakens in the middle of the night in a cold sweat after being caught up in a memory of his time serving in Iraq, Tom, rather than responding with panic, simply asks him questions, like what his favorite color is, to help ease him down from this moment of panic. In only a handful of lines of dialogue, the level of experience these two have in caring for one another is established, just one of many instances of Leave No Trace managing to convey so much with only minimal amounts of verbal communication.

Despite Tom and Will working together quite well, such an unorthodox way of living cannot go on forever as the pair are eventually discovered by law enforcement officers who bring them back to the real world. It is here that Leave No Trace follows Tom as she begins to assimilate to a world she's only had a passing familiarity with while Will grapples with working in the confines of conventional society once again. Their individual highly different reactions to being brought back into the real world are depicted through director Debra Granik's masterful use of restraint and subtlety that could be seen in abundance in how she and Rosellini wrote those aforementioned opening sequences that introduced the viewer to who Will and Tom are.

Such beautifully executed subdued storytelling is not eschewed once Tom and Will are forced to adjust to normalcy and this more understated style serves the exploration of these two lead characters. For instance, Tom first realizing she might actually like aspects of the normal world that she'd always run or hidden from come from her quietly connecting with a young neighbor who introduces her to the local 4H club where she's able to pet rabbits and make other friends. Watching her enjoy the process of connecting with another human being, you can immediately begin to understand why Tom's suddenly thinking the idea of sticking around here in a more conventional home might not be such a bad idea after all. By exploring character growth through these kinds of realistically subdued sequences, the viewer gets the chance to really know Tom and Will better as well as fully understand what influences their thought processes and actions.

Plus, such subdued scenes of character exploration offer the chance for real nuance to be incorporated into the proceedings. Neither the modern-day world nor Will's secluded style of living are painted as inherently good or bad and why would they? Granik and Rosellini's script is not about painting such opposing elements in broad strokes that clearly define one as the force the audience should always be sympathetic to, rather, it's a coming-of-age story for Tom who is able to get some sense of individuality for herself as she grapples with the idea that maybe how she wants to live her life and how her father is capable of living his life might not be one and the same. To properly explore such a situation in a manner that's dramatically captivating, you need realistic characters and for that, you need nuance and Leave No Trace has it in spades.

No wonder then that that aforementioned coming-of-age story proves to be so thoroughly transfixing, especially since Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough don't use the low-key nature of the feature as an excuse to slack off on the film on a visual level. There's plenty of excellent pieces of staging, camerawork and shot compositions to be found in here, with a haunting shot of Tom and Will alone in an empty train car especially sticking out in my mind as a great example of how deftly Leave No Trace can some such powerful pieces of imagery without disrupting the appropriately muted aesthetic of the rest of the project.

But the best aspect of all in Leave No Trace may be it's two excellent lead performances, with Ben Foster's turn as Will being absolutely heartbreaking to watch thanks to how much pain Foster is able to convey in subtle ways. Just watching him depict his character struggle to do a computer program meant to asses his mental state leaves you shaken, he's so devastatingly powerful in his work here and he manages to exude all of this weariness without sacrificing the humanity of Will in the process, a remarkable feat. But it's Thomasin McKenzie who may just walk away with this movie with her outstanding lead performance. There's a lot of individual elements of Leave No Trace that thrives on the subtle nature of this movie, but McKenzie's quietly powerful acting especially excels in the specific atmosphere of this Debra Granik motion picture.

Just the way McKenzie can deliver pivotal lines in a soft-spoken way that still manage to convey so many different pent-up emotions is remarkable to witness while she also handles Tom's growing sense of awareness of her father's mortality in a similarly successful and riveting manner. McKenzie makes an already well-written character like Tom truly come alive with her top-notch performance and it's in that performance that some of the most devastating moments of Leave No Trace emerge. Speaking of performances, special kudos need to be served to Dale Dickey, a character actor mainstay who delivers maybe her best performance in a career chock full of memorable turns as a woman residing in a trailer park that provides comfort and kindness to our two protagonists. From performances like Dickey's, McKenzie's and Fosters to the visuals to the writing to everything in between, subtlety reigns supreme here in Debra Granik's Leave No Trace and considering such subtlety results in a captivating motion picture, I say "Long may subtlety reign!"

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