I read Walden first when I was a teenager and assumed that because it was written in this elaborate, if occasionally beautiful, way there must have been something insightful in there. You know, minimalism, simplicity, getting in touch with our roots. Society is square anyway, to hell with all the people who tell you what to do. This hermit knew how to live!
Later on I’d actually learn about Thoreau. In short, he was a big ol’ bag of dicks who most people found disagreeable and his personal wilderness was but twenty minutes’ walk from the family home. He’d visit them and they’d visit him for meals several times a week. You go back to the book with experience and all of a sudden that rugged individualism is hard to read as anything but the ignorance of that sort of very sheltered libertarian ideologue that we see today.
I could bitch about that book more, but suffice to say the myth of Walden lives on. It’s more an American thing, but we see the author return through various guises in our storytelling. Most recently I remember he was the star of the deeply terrible Matt Ross joint Captain Fantastic, another work I ranted about in length. It comes hard to trust films made about isolationists, when the very basis of our cultural assumption on their lives is so off base it is hard for our art to convey anything close to truth.
I should have known to expect better of Debra Granik. Her last feature Winter’s Bone is a frank and beautiful depiction of the life that exists on the margins of society. Wonderfully acted, compellingly written, and with a deep well of empathy that informs everything appearing on screen. It’s a masterpiece.
Leave No Trace is also. It’s early scenes of Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie living this idealised Thoreauian existence out in the forests of the Pacific Northwest are swiftly interrupted as they are spotted by a hiker and swiftly apprehended by the police and social security as they try to figure out how best to deal with the situation.
It is telling in this early scene how easy it is for our heroes to be apprehended. Society here is not the fool portrayed in other, more libertarian, fantasies. Neither are they the villain. The characters approach the situation with consideration and compassion, the film makes their lack of understanding and adaptability clear, but never serves to cloud their motives.
The father Will is a veteran, we see him waking up at night shaken; collecting his medication from a VA centre in Portland, surrounded by others that the state do not know how to adequately care for. When around other people and the entangled environments that we keep for ourselves he shuts down. You can see it in his performance, the man can’t keep up when encountering the various stressors that are laid into every facet of contemporary life. He is just searching for comfort.
And his daughter Tom just wants to be with him. She loves and understands her father while knowing that his life has become designed to be impossible for anyone else to. Yet, as they move on after having been released from the state’s care, trying to find a way to recapture what they had before, they simply can’t. So they search, the country and themselves in order to find a dynamic which will work.
When confronted with reality, it is hard to return to a comfortable and pleasant fiction. So Granik resists that, she uses the spaces that these characters move through to discuss the meaning of isolation and what we might take to be its opposite, community. Her camera quietly interrogates, never forcing itself upon a situation, but lingering. For a brief moment she’ll build the fully featured picture of a place, then settle on her characters as they react to it.
She really is one of the best directors of actors working. McKenzie’s starring debut is goddamn awe inspiring, how she manages and develops the character’s relationship with the almost silent father is masterful. Foster too, in his withdrawal finds feeling and time, he finds ways to allow us to access him; rather than approaching these scenes closed off to the world.
It is this innate understanding that is the film’s greatest strength. Thoreau idealised a life lived not separate from the world but apart from it. His writing reflected that. He would devote passages to trying encounters with people he came across who were as unable to comprehend his living as he was unwilling to consider theirs. Leave No Trace is never so onanistic, it sees the humanity in everyone it comes across and understands the world is a far worse place if it is not represented.
You’re probably too late to catch Leave No Trace in UK cinemas now. Try hit it when the home video drops.