D.H. Lawrence’s observation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” that “it has never yet melted,” has always been obvious to everybody but Americans. Like all predators, we see ourselves, not as hunters, but as the hunted. In reality, we’ve always been both. For an Iraqi, a Vietnamese, or a Korean, a U.S. Marine or an American soldier means little except death and destruction. That same apex predator, returning home, however, often finds himself living on the streets, haunted by what he has done for his country, unable to assimilate back into the society whose “freedom” he was supposedly guarding.
Deborah Granik’s Leave No Trace opens with Will, a man who appears to be about 40, living in Forest Park just outside of Portland Oregon with his teenage daughter “Tom.” We seem them chopping wood, starting a fire using a pair of flints, going into town to buy food, setting up, then breaking down their campsite, and, above all, taking precautions to camouflage themselves, to “leave no trace,” lest they be discovered, and separated. At first glance, it seems like an idyllic existence. They have everything they need. They obviously love each other. They have successfully broken free from the American rat race. When Tom carelessly reveals their presence, and they are chased through the woods by Park Rangers with dogs, we’re horrified. We think of escaped slaves and slave catchers, or native Americans running away from the inevitable encroachment of European civilization, and genocide.
The strength of Granik’s script, and her direction, is how she slowly, methodically, and with a careful attention to detail, reveals just how mistaken we are. Even in the very beginning we have our suspicions. There’s no hint of sexual abuse or incest. Will and Tom are a loving father and daughter who care deeply about each other, who have such an easy, intuitive rapport that they complete each other’s sentences and finish each other’s chores, and yet we still wonder why a teenage girl would want to live such an isolated existence, not able to go to school, have friends, own a cat or dog , or plan for the future. The police, of course, are police, and yet “the authorities” are anything but oppressors. The social workers and family services people who take Will and Tom under their control genuinely want to help them reintegrate themselves back into society. Father and daughter are not separated. On the contrary, they’re given a place to stay in rural Oregon and Will is given a job.
It’s here we see their perspectives begin to diverge. Tom likes their new home. She meets a boy her age, and they bond over a common love of animals. A performance art group at a local church instructs her in how to use props. Social services gives her a bike, and she begins to learn how to ride. Will, however, despises his job. He begins to grow possessive of his daughter. He feels dependent and alienated, suspecting that he and Tom are being softened up by social services in order to subject them to a greater degree of control later on. At this point, we don’t quite know what to think. Granik skillfully validates both their points of view. After Tom’s new friend takes her to a 4H meeting, where some other teenage girls are learning how to handle small farm animals, we realize that she’s a natural. She doesn’t have to be taught how to pick up a large rabbit. She already knows. She makes friends easily with kids her own age. Older people want to offer her advice and guidance. She wants to stay and we want to see her stay. When Will forces her to leave, for the first time, we’re angry at him, and yet we also see the world through his eyes. Whether or not its intentional on Granik’s part, the scenes of Will at work harvesting Christmas trees recall The Devil Probably, Robert Bresson’s great film about environmental destruction. We feel his alienation when he’s forced to fill out paperwork, and take useless psychological examinations. We know something’s eating this guy. He knows it. His daughter certainly knows it, and it’s obvious that no multiple choice test on a computer is going to help him figure it out.
As the film proceeds we begin to realize what we’ve suspected all along. Will is not only an Iraq War vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he’s probably suicidal, haunted by something that he did, or perhaps didn’t do, but, above all, hunted, on the run, unable to stop, even for a second, lest his demons catch up and destroy him. We now find ourselves on the outside looking out. To be more specific, we find ourselves looking at him through his daughter’s eyes. Will has, half intentionally – for she’s his own connection to the world of the living – but half unintentionally trapped Tom in his own private hell, pulled her along on his flight from his invisible predators. We realize along with Tom, that if she’s going to survive, she might just have to let him die. It’s a choice nobody, let alone a teenage girl, should have to make. Tom wants to hold on as long as possible, to be his one and only connection to humanity, for as long as she’s able to bear it. In the end, being human, she can’t, so she lets go. The final scene is not only as heartbreaking as anything I’ve seen recently in film, it’s so subtle and low key, you’ll miss it if you even blink.