leave no trace review
© Sony Pictures Releasing

Leave No Trace

2018
Dir: Debra Granik 

The Running Man

Ben Foster has been consistently delivering stand-out performances since his memorably psychotic turn in 2006’s Alpha Dog. His was the performance that made that Justin-Timberlake-is-an-actor manifesto so enjoyable. Such was the undiluted strength of his display, he’s become rather typecast as the unhinged villain, see recent examples Hell or High Water (2016) and Hostiles (2017). It’s inevitable, maybe. He certainly nails ‘restrained intensity’ like few others. Thus he’s to be found upholding and grounding the lead, but rarely filling the central slot himself. Indeed, when he did take the helm, in the overlooked Lance Armstrong exposé The Program (2015), it was as someone universally regarded as villainous.

So it might be his established position in the supporting role, or, risking rudeness, perhaps he doesn’t exude the flawless looks of the true screen idol. Whatever the reason, his isn’t a star name, so it’s not trumpeted on the advertising for the latest venture to boast his talent; Leave No Trace.

This slice of home-grown American art house is far from a one-man show though, it’s a beautifully balanced and sparse two-hander. Young Thomasin McKenzie is the real revelation, and, together, they assert an affecting father-daughter bond. Will and Tom live in the woods, coping with the rigours of outdoor living just fine, happy in each others’ company. They’re actively satisfied by its physical demands, and play chess for mental nutrition in any downtime they get. Yet they’re always on edge …on the run from something. Inevitably, when the authorities do catch up with them, they’re housed in a project for those scraping by on the edge of society. Organised by a kindly benefactor, it even provides gainful employment; harvesting pine trees for Christmas. It’s a fresh start, they’re making a go of it, but can such a restless spirit as Will ever settle for the settled life?

This film has genuine elemental power. It has the confidence to take its time, unhurriedly laying out the sights and the sounds of the wild. And before long, you’re connecting with the pleasure of being in nature, of being amongst animals, of just being. Yet Will is forever hunted and haunted by something ever closing in, that restrained intensity of Foster’s being utilised to beautiful effect.

From such a simple set-up, this is a highly thought-provoking work, and for two reasons. On the surface, it reveals the lack of support for those caught in the aftermath of Will’s plight. Simultaneously, it raises pertinent questions of how hard it is to escape the trappings of modernity, so entwined are we in technology. We’re venturing into a dark place to consider the impossibility of achieving such freedom from the digital world. Even if it’s beginning to appeal more than many of us would comfortably admit.

Handsomely shot and minimally eloquent, the tone explores the uncharted hinterland between pastoral reverie and chase thriller. Will is a caring, pure soul, burning from an internal rage, but understanding the danger (and futility) of expressing it, choosing to absorb his suffering for the greater good. Regardless of the self-inflicted damage. And irrevocably tied to him, McKenzie reflects Tom’s predicament with heartfelt love, keen maturity, and an expertly honed quiver of the chin.

With slow, easy pace, depth and subtlety, this is a deeply rewarding, articulate and powerful movie. It manages to express a vast reserve of emotion with the simplest of stories, and gentle, modest execution. To do so feels a little like the film-makers have tracked and snared their own cinematic holy grail.

★ ★ ★ ★

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