September 2018

Arts & Letters

The hermitic world of Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

By Shane Danielsen

The ‘Winter’s Bone’ director takes her exploration of family ties off the grid

According to the late Ronald Reagan, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. For this casual piece of social sabotage (not to mention his inaction on AIDS and his enthusiasm for certain Central American despots), history should judge the Gipper harshly. Yet his stance worked: long before Donald Trump steered the Republican Party decisively toward white nationalism, Reagan’s contempt for federal authority began to infect public discourse. It was in many ways a logical next step: building upon the frontier mentality on which the United States was founded, and the trite, enduring myth of American Exceptionalism.

The system is broken or corrupt, or both. It imposes conformity of behaviour and a lowering of expectations, each inimical to “freedom”. (Also: taxes.) Therefore, the thinking goes, we must exist outside of the system in order to be most truly ourselves. “Every American story is a kind of Western,” a British friend once remarked: a longing for self-governance and some land of one’s own, far from the polis with its pampered elites, its circumscribed opportunities, its obscure codes and petty humiliations.

But what if your horizon is already fenced in, and the open plains are an impossible dream? What if the only escape lies within? This is the question posed by Leave No Trace (in general release), the excellent new drama from American filmmaker Debra Granik.

If that name rings a bell, it’s because you may recall her previous feature, the low-budget US indie Winter’s Bone (2010). Nominated for four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay), it also gave its 19-year-old star, Jennifer Lawrence, a career; regrettably, she’s never been quite as good again. The rural noir, set deep in the Missouri Ozarks, boasted a remarkable sense of inhabited realism – an authenticity that seemed to transcend mere research. (Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and based for years in New York City, Granik herself is hardly a daughter of the soil.)

Some critics have termed Granik’s work anthropological; in fact she’s an unvarnished social realist, heir to a proud filmic tradition that includes Ken Loach, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and, more recently, Sean (The Florida Project) Baker. All are drawn, in one way or another, to stories of people clinging to society’s fringes, losers in the zero-sum formulation of global capitalism.

And, like those filmmakers, Granik has steadfastly resisted the obvious (i.e., Hollywood) career trajectory. No film is nominated for four Oscars without its maker’s life changing at least a little: back in 2011, Granik would surely have had her run of the table, in terms of available projects. But instead she hunkered down and did exactly what she’s always done: located material that spoke meaningfully to her (in this case Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment), developed an adaptation slowly over a number of drafts (in collaboration once more with her creative partner Anne Rosellini), and commenced the long, frequently dispiriting process of getting said project funded without a bankable star attached. “The Hollywood Director Who Casts Nobodies To Capture Real Rural America,” trumpeted a recent headline in The Huffington Post – as if she were some kind of unimaginable oddity. Then again, perhaps she is.

This time, the setting is the Pacific Northwest – specifically, the lush, dense forests outside Portland, in which live Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter, Tom (New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie). They’re survivalists, determined to exist off the grid; their days are spent gathering food and playing chess and reading – a routine Will punctuates every so often with rehearsals of flight and concealment, games of hide-and-seek that belie a serious purpose.

In his olive drab, a remnant of his former life as a marine, he blends easily into his surroundings. Tom, though, is less adept. “Your socks burned you,” he says matter-of-factly after one such drill – but the problem goes deeper than colourful footwear. She’s a teenage girl, on the verge of leaving childhood behind. And, as such, far too vivid to become invisible.

Instead of backstory, Granik offers a handful of telling omissions. Tom’s mother is absent, perhaps dead or maybe just gone. And Will is clearly suffering from PTSD; the noise of a helicopter, circling overhead, reduces him to a huddled wreck. But precisely what horrors he witnessed, and where, remain undefined. Appropriately, for lives spent foraging for the next meal, father and daughter live in a continuous present, with neither the time nor the energy for much introspection. It’s how soldiers are trained to exist, moving swiftly and decisively from moment to moment … but only one of these two is a warrior. Though largely unbothered by the past, Tom does gradually begin to imagine what her future might look like. The friends she might have, the home she might inhabit. And, in doing so, she takes the first step on a road that will lead her away from her loving, damaged dad.

The Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu made some of the greatest movies about fathers and daughters, and the story was always more or less the same: the child must ultimately abandon the parent in order to commence her own life. But in those films the fathers (inevitably played by Chishū Ryū, the director’s favourite actor) accepted and even encouraged their offspring to move on. Will is different, so hostile to conventional society that he can’t conceive of a life within it. He never explicitly holds Tom back, but he does expect her to follow him. Which is only reasonable while she’s a child; however flawed, he remains her father. But by the end of the film she’s a girl no longer. Her life and her choices are her own.

For much of the first act, Granik observes their routines with a patient, attentive eye. Then, abruptly, she kicks the narrative into gear when Tom is glimpsed one day by a hiker. She panics and runs, the authorities are alerted and, despite all their meticulous preparation, the pair are soon taken into custody by social services, agents of that hated government. Suspicions that their relationship might be inappropriate prove groundless, but nevertheless it looks like Tom will be taken from Will and placed into care.

Unexpectedly, a compromise is reached – courtesy of a sympathetic local who, having read about their case, offers to take them in. They’ll live rent-free in a small bungalow on his property; in return, Will can work alongside him, logging trees. Fearful of losing his daughter, Will agrees, but inevitably he loathes his new life. He paces the house like a tiger in a cage, gazes with distaste at the freshly made bed, the refrigerator filled with food. Before he even takes off his shoes, he unplugs the TV and puts it in a closet.

All the while, Tom tries to assuage his fears. Yes, she says, things are different now. “But we can still think our own thoughts.”

The same phrase is repeated later in the film, whispered like an incantation, and the words stayed with me – I suspect because they speak so clearly to the present moment. Freedom of thought, in modern-day America, is increasingly offered up as the only liberty left intact, a bulwark against pesky political correctness. It’s the clarion defence of men (and occasionally women) for whom America means a particular thing – invariably white, Christian and patriarchal.

Will seems benign, if broken – and Ben Foster is an immensely likeable actor – but you have to wonder: how much of his abhorrence of the everyday world is motivated by a fear of contamination from the diversity (of thought, of conduct) a modern urban centre embodies? It wouldn’t seem an issue, were the alternative – the outsider communities we glimpse during their journey – not so uniformly white. (This isn’t a criticism, incidentally. On the contrary, it seems a perfectly accurate representation of this particular milieu.) The possibility is intriguing and disquieting, but one that the film, more alert to the loosening bond between parent and child, never quite addresses.

Granik is fascinated by, but not uncritical of, such outsiders. Like them, she has limited faith in systems, but is too drawn to the bonds of community, too obviously gladdened by acts of kindness, to be a libertarian. A consummate filmmaker, she knows precisely where to set the frame and how long to hold a shot; her every aesthetic choice feels at once instinctive and right. Yet there’s nothing flashy about her technique. On the contrary, like Loach, she aims for a radical transparency of style, a clear lens through which some deeper truth might shine.

She’s also one of the finest directors of young people in contemporary American cinema, drawing performances of remarkable subtlety and conviction from screen neophytes and obvious non-professionals. I suspect this is because she approaches her cast – famous or not – with precisely the tools a true storyteller requires: curiosity, patience and respect. What she did for Lawrence in Winter’s Bone she may not need to do for McKenzie, whose star is already in the ascent, with roles in forthcoming films from David Michôd (The King) and Taika Waititi (the likely-to-be-excellent Jojo Rabbit, about a young German boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler). Even so, there’s a moment of piercing sincerity, when Tom declares to a kindly trailer-park owner how much she loves living in their community, which more than amply attests to the newcomer’s gifts.

There’s currently a great deal of discussion about the relative scarcity of female directors, much of it important and all of it overdue. Yet Granik is rarely listed among the movement’s conspicuous successes, an omission I find baffling. Not only is she one of the most important contemporary American filmmakers, but her principled rejection of easy commercial options and her desire to work strictly on her own humanist terms constitute a powerful moral statement: a belief in cinema’s ability to generate not only excitement, but empathy; not just wonder, but understanding. Storm the citadel, by all means. But the margins matter, too.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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