Ben Foster is one of our greatest living actors. From his first film role in the criminally underrated teen comedy Get Over It to having the most fun out of everyone in Duncan Jones’s messily ambitious Warcraft, no matter the job, Foster delivers. If rumors are to be believed, he might even get a bit too into his roles; traipsing barefoot through the snow (30 Days of Night), eating dirt (Lone Survivor) and whatnot.
Approaching 40, and boasting an impressively varied slate, Foster is finally gifted the leading man role of his dreams (he also killed it as Lance Armstrong in the under-seen The Program a few years back, but that’s another story). Debra Granik’s quietly troubling Leave No Trace pitches him as one of just two characters onscreen for most of its two hour run-time. And he nails it.
Foster is Will, a committed father and Army vet living off the grid in the Portland wilderness with his teenage daughter Tom (an astonishing Thomasin McKenzie). Together, the two sleep in a ramshackle hut, forage for food and learn all about the world via encyclopedias and Pop’s at-home lessons. All appears to be well, if a little unorthodox, in their little household.
Tragedy strikes when, after Tom is spotted by a passing jogger, the authorities come knocking to inquire about why the young lady isn’t in school, and just what her father thinks he’s doing keeping her away from society at large. The duo is housed in temporary accommodation by a kind social worker but, although Tom settles in nicely, something is niggling at Will.
Granik, who co-writes and directs here, takes her sweet time with Leave No Trace. Although it begins similarly to the terrific Captain Fantastic, which features Viggo Mortensen as a wilder, more hippie-ish counterpart to Will, this is a darker, contemplative story. When it seems Will and Tom have been “saved,” for want of a better word, the opposite is clearly true for one of them.
Foster imbues his lived-in performance with all the hallmarks of unspoken trauma. He’s clearly been through something terrible; that much is evident from his night terrors, and Tom takes tools from another veteran to assist her if Will ever tries to hurt either one of them. While Tom loves the space their new digs affords them, her father feels claustrophobic.
Foster has never had typical leading man looks, which is handy when he needs to go dark like this, but he’s getting even craggier as he ages — witness him opposite Chris Pine in the dusty western Hell or High Water. Here, his pained expressions communicate a lifetime of struggle no dialogue could ever capture. To that end, he and Granik worked together to strip back the script to its minimum so every word spoken is completely necessary.
Much of Leave No Trace‘s conflict plays out in Will’s reactions to various setbacks, in his inability to adapt to any changes in his life. The film’s most harrowing moment comes when Will is forced to undertake a mental health evaluation and struggles to answer questions about his own barely disguised depression. He’s a desperately sad, isolated man, who is trying hard to keep it together. His pride makes it even more difficult for Will to admit he’s struggling.
The father-daughter relationship, created in part through lengthy hugs on set until the actors didn’t feel weird anymore (really), is fully believable in its intimacy, and in the easy shorthand with which Will and Tom communicate. Although it’s clear the man is tortured, he hasn’t failed as a father, as is evident when social workers learn Tom is far ahead of her classmates in school.
There are no villains in Leave No Trace. Whether it’s the veterans who buy Will’s PTSD meds from him, the social workers looking to rehouse he and Tom, or every other kindly person they meet along their journey — helpers according to her, hindrances according to him — everybody is just trying to get by as best they can.
Crucially, Will isn’t painted as somebody keeping Tom from living her life, or from seeing the world. Where Captain Fantastic suggested that maybe Mortensen’s father figure was a bit controlling, Leave No Trace establishes early on that Will is doing his best for Tom. The issue isn’t that he’s selfish or self righteous, it’s that he can’t heal from his experiences enough to move forward. He doesn’t mean to hold her back; it’s simply a symptom of his cracked psyche.
Their little family setup doesn’t appear completely crazy, either. Thanks to Michael McDonough’s lush cinematography (he also collaborated with Granik for her debut, Winter’s Bone), the woodlands of Oregon look positively ripe with fresh mushrooms and berries. He contrasts the deep greens of the forest with the dull, washed out greys of the temporary accommodation Will and Tom attempt to settle into, suggesting there might be a better life outside rather than indoors.
Where Tom sees the colors in a bunny rabbit, a crush’s eyes and the changing landscape around her, Will sees only blackness. He needs to keep the two of them within the parameters of a specific lifestyle or he risks losing his grip on the world. Leave No Trace finds its tension in the growing gap between father and daughter as Tom’s worldview widens while Will’s closes in.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.