I was allowed to dislike Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace when I saw it last January in Park City. The first 65 minutes’ worth, I mean, which were all I could take. Everyone else seemed favorably disposed or deeply touched, but I couldn’t handle Ben Foster‘s Will character — a quietly seething, stressed-out-dad with a nearly bald head and all kinds of creepy stares and glares. I’ve always felt unnerved by Foster. He might be a steady cat off the set, but he’s always struck me as a weirdo beardo.
Will and his 13 year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin KcKenzie) have been surviving in the Oregon forest, completely cut off from society and eating off the land or close to it. And I just couldn’t tolerate what Will was doing to Tom, keeping her away from society and boys and everything else. He’s a kind of twitchy, neurotic naturalist because of his Middle East combat experience with the U.S military, but who is this ass telling his daughter that she’s going to know nothing of the world except for the the smell of streams, damp leaves, fir trees and pine cones for the rest of her life? Seriously, what a dick.
I’m also allowed to explain why Leave No Trace has aggregate ratings of 100% and 88% from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively. It’s because Granik is a skilled, straight-shooting director — everyone loved Down To The Bone (’04) and Winter’s Bone (’10) — and highly respected by critics. She’s female and indie-brand with her own ethos and way of shooting, and nobody wants to give her a hard time. Except for Debruge and one or two others they’re all “in the tank” for Granik, and that means if a fairly decent film like Leave No Trace comes along, they’re going to praise it all they can. They’ll never admit it, but it’s how the game works with certain filmmakers. Kelly Reichardt is another indie helmer who always gets a pass.
Leave No Trace is a pretty good film if you can handle Foster’s behavior. It’s a eye-level thing about people and their curious personalities and the rules they have to enforce or adhere to. It’s thoughtful, earnest, and refreshingly free of cliches. But it’s not that good. It’s acceptable as far as it goes. Some have actually called Granik’s film “extremely boring”, which it is if you want to be hard-nosed about it. In his Sundance review the occasionally surprising Variety critic Peter Debruge actually said “there’s a listless, almost meandering nature to the story…no sense of where the script is headed, and no urgency to its resolution.”
As I said last January, I didn’t “hate” Leave No Trace, but I did bail around the two-thirds mark. I just didn’t give a damn about watching a quietly seething asshole dad insisting on living in the damp, chilly woods with his intelligent, coming-into-her-own teenaged daughter. I saw no charm, no appeal, nothing intriguing in this absurdly paranoid approach to life and living. It’s one thing to live without a TV or smartphones, but eating mushrooms and shitting in the woods without toilet paper?
Really, what possible good can come from hanging with another intrepid naturalist a la Viggo Mortensen‘s dad in Captain Fantastic? To hell with these pater familias and their oppressive, Thoreau-like parenting theologies. Poor McKenzie is becoming curious about the world and wants to socialize a bit and maybe see what it’s like to have a boyfriend, but her scowling dickhead dad, whose damaged background Granik can barely be bothered to explain, wants none of it.
So after the authorities intercede at the end of Act One and try to prompt Foster to allow his daughter a chance to adapt and socialize and find her way into a structured, work-oriented rural life, Foster’s Will says “c’mon, daughter, we’re going back to the pine cones.” He loves her, but what a hopelessly deranged prick. Of course his daughter will stand up and go her own way by some point in the midst of Act Three. I knew that going in.