film Into the Woods

Shane Danielsen on De­bra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - Shane Danielsen on De­bra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

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

A con­sum­mate film­maker, she knows pre­cisely where to set the frame and how long to hold a shot.

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-be­ex­cel­lent 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.

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