Leave No Trace
By Jacob Davis With on February 11, 2018

Leave No Trace, from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik, is the story of a father (Ben Foster) and daughter (newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) who live in a paradise of their own creation in the woods, removed from civilization. One mistake sends the world as they know it into turmoil and they are forced to make a choice about how they will lead their lives. Granik displays the same care for creation that she did in her previous film. Nature is shot with respect and beauty as if she is another character in the cast list. The script is sparse and says a lot while speaking a little. The cinematography is breathtaking, dressed in the same under saturated and bleak attire as Winter’s Bone. I could sit with Granik’s work for hours, admiring her eye for natural beauty and innocence. As she did with Jennifer Lawrence, she makes McKenzie look like a household name. Thomasin’s mature and nuanced performance breathes life into the film. The unspoken chemistry between McKenzie and Foster is simultaneously unnerving and mesmerizing. This relationship between father and daughter is the blood pumping through the veins of the heart that this film lays bare. Like Granik’s debut, this too is a film about family and what we do to protect those we love. Ben Foster’s character is a tortured soul, an army vet that deals with PTSD and whose hermit like disposition threatens to keep his daughter from her childhood. You would be hard pressed to find a more gentle, honest and fair portrayal of the challenges of PTSD. Granik is meticulous in her efforts to ensure she doesn’t sensationalize Will’s condition or turn it into a plot device. It is simply a part of his being, albeit a consuming part, one that needs no articulation beyond the measured, quiet performance given by Foster. What is left is the story of people who are lost, who slip through the cracks, who love but at the same time are incapable of trust. Leave No Trace is less about where this tragedy leads us our characters than just how they can manage to arrive there without breaking each other’s hearts. Granik’s deliberate pacing creates a growing tension between the relentless love of family and the need for community. She draws you close and keeps you there. You ache for the characters to understand that sometimes there is more love in letting go than holding close. Near the film’s conclusion, Will and Thom find themselves in the care of a community of outsiders living in shacks and trailers in the woods of Washington State. In this unorthodox family, Thom finds the acceptance that she has been looking for, the love that her father cannot give her, the gift of human touch. It is indeed a sad ending but one laced with hope. Hope nestled in the bosom of sacrifice, as we come to the painful realization that we are all longing to be found despite our best efforts to cover our tracks. Granik’s work challenges us as followers of Jesus to reacquaint ourselves with the art of community. In a world of constantly increasing information, the one thing we fail to know is each other. A recent study by Accel and quatrics shows that members of the current generation check their phones close to 150 times a day. We are more intimate with our phones than with each other. We are more accustomed to the touch of a screen than the touch of another. We find comfort in our technology and fail to look up long enough to realize that there are people all around us longing to be seen, to be known. In the midst of a culture that is growing increasingly isolated, Leave No Trace beckons us to look up and reach out, to come to grips with the pain and fear that hold us captive and let them go long enough to accept/extend the loving touch of community. In Granik’s characters I see the shadow of a bleeding woman who’s fear and pain caused her to tremble in the presence of Jesus. She expected a harsh rejection but what she found was a healing touch. In the same way, Jesus drew near to the lepers, he offered them what society had robbed them of, the gift of human contact, the love that comes with being truly known by another. Leave No Trace serves as an unlikely, prophetic voice reminding us that we need each other, and challenging us to take up, with renewed fervor, the work of community that Jesus began.

About the Author: Jacob Davis

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