Sunday 4 November 2018

On DVD: "Leave No Trace"

It's now been eight years since Debra Granik made Winter's Bone, that study of hardscrabble life on the fringes of the Appalachians that garnered stellar reviews and serious Oscar consideration, while ushering Jennifer Lawrence along the road to international prominence. Whatever that hiatus says about the industry at large, it may finally say a good deal more about Granik herself: that here is a filmmaker with patience in her blood, who elected to turn down the easy offers that must have come her way in the months following her Oscar platform to instead hold out, bide her time, and await the moment when she could unveil a project that would be worth the wait. Such patience is key to the success of Granik's follow-up Leave No Trace, which starts by dotting the screen with a vivid spot of colour - a father and daughter camping out amid the extraordinarily verdant forests surrounding Portland - and leaving a blankness around these images that invites questions. What are this pair doing out here? Where's the mother? That this expedition is not part of some hippy-dippy, back-to-nature stance can be intuited from the way in which the dad (Ben Foster) flinches at the sound of a lumberjack's chainsaw, and runs drills preparing his teenage offspring (Thomasin McKenzie) for the eventuality of the authorities moving in on their bivouac. What first seems an idyll is gradually revealed as a state of siege in the great outdoors.

One of the reasons Leave No Trace must have taken so long to put together is its unusual narrative shape. Taking its cue from the landscape it surveys, the drama develops organically, in a manner that may just have confounded the script doctors over at the ever-neat-and-tidy Sundance Lab. Granik gives us the happy ending half an hour in - dad and daughter coaxed out of their fraught, hand-to-mouth existence by care workers, offered security (via a job farming pine trees) and shelter (in presentable-looking accommodation) - then sits back to see what happens once these characters have a roof placed over their heads. It's during this transition that the film reveals its unifying theme. This is a drama of adaptation that, at every turn, demands the viewer be equally adaptable; tied at some essential level to the leads' transience, the film blows in the wind, goes wherever this lopsided family unit decides to go. Don't get too attached to the pine farm, or the cabin in the woods the pair break into upon their impromptu return to the wilderness, for everybody's passing through here. Granik's lens is itself set to the widest-eyed setting imaginable, gathering a succession of new sights along the route: a pensioner fandance, a beekeeping lesson.

It helps that the director recruits performers whom you'd happily follow to the ends of the earth. Granik generates an obvious empathy with the curious, adventurous, increasingly independent girl, caught picking up the totems of a more conventional upbringing - a bike, a rabbit, a boy - only to be required to drop them and move on; McKenzie, a Kiwi actress who appears never to have set foot in a city in her life, really does seem to be acting on long-nurtured instinct here. (In the forest scenes, I swear you can see her ears prick up on perceiving a threat, like those of a doe.) Yet she similarly allows us to understand where the brusque, closed-off father is coming from as he heads further into isolation and retreat. It is a gruelling and lonely path this man is bent on following - a lot of scrabbling, no lasting warmth - but the ever-thoughtful Foster makes something quietly heroic, or at least noble, out of the character's self-reliance, the pride he takes in the fact he's never made off with what he terms "other people's food". We're brought so close to these two that you may wonder whether Leave No Trace contains a seed of self-reflexivity, whether this is Granik the freelancer mulling over themes of independence (in the cinema, as in life), and where it takes us. Which do you value more: the ability to make fire with one's bare hands, or the comfort the girl takes from having a mattress to sleep on, a home to call her own?

By raising such questions - which are by no means limited to artisans of the Pacific Northwest with an Academy Award nomination under their belts - Leave No Trace assumes a more universal dimension yet; indeed, the further the film drifts away from the established centre, the more insistently the Foster character puts civilisation in all its forms behind him, the more the whole comes to resemble The Grapes of Wrath updated for a new Depression, relocated however many miles north. Granik's drama retains the same compelling mix of anger and sadness one found in Steinbeck's prose and John Ford's images, that rage that ordinary people should have been reduced to living such tentative, cursory, threadbare lives. Working towards a vision of impoverishment and trauma that feels both tangible and terrifyingly true, Leave No Trace may be the most quietly political film 2018 has given us; it's certainly among the most accomplished. It's taken time for Granik's images to find their way to us from the margins they so eloquently describe, but her patience has been wholly rewarded.

Leave No Trace is released on DVD through Sony Pictures tomorrow.

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