Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone is a programmatic deconstruction and disarticulation of the settler mentality that has come to pervade so much white male identity politics over the last twenty years. Part of that programmatic approach is a strict three act structure, the first of which opens with a father, Will (Ben Foster), and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) living in what appears to be the American wilderness. For the first twenty minutes or so, we follow this eccentric family through their daily routine, which involves building tools, using sunlight and fire to cook, and embarking upon one training routine after another in the event of their lifestyle being brought under threat. From the very outset, it’s clear that Will is traumatized in some kind of way, and it’s only a matter of time before we learn that his wife died tragically some time before, and that he also has a fairly confronting military career behind him. It’s just as clear, too, that he considers himself to be doing his very best to make sure that Tom’s life isn’t beset by trauma, and that she is able to develop an identity free from the demands of mass culture.
Nevertheless, there are also clear indications, in this opening act, that Will’s program of back-to-basics education is pretty disingenuous as well. For one thing, Granik suddenly reveals that he and Tom aren’t living in the middle of the wilderness at all, but just camping in a state park, five minutes walk from the Portland Metro Area. Combined with Will’s hipster aesthetic, and his artisanal approach to things, it quickly comes to feel as if his lifestyle involves exactly the kinds of affectations parodied by Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia, especially since he is apparently more than happy to go into the city centre whenever he and Tom requires amenities, or health supplies. As much as he might require her to dutifully divide their regular supermarket purchases according to “want” and “need,” they’re not really that different from any typical suburban family in their dependence on consumerism and mass production, as much as Will might continually insist to Tom that they’re above it. Those discussions, and the tenor of those discussions, are also part of what denature these opening scenes as well, with Will turning every single opportunity into a teachable moment, to the point where his very presence becomes synonymous with wisdom, and he goes beyond mere mainsplaining to a mode of fathersplaining that feels quite creepy and, in its own particular way, quite megalomaniacal.
To be sure, Will doesn’t wield his power over other people, or even seem especially interested in other people. Yet it’s just that individualist mindset that makes him so unappealing, since all the problems that his lifestyle is supposedly addressing – global warming, environmental catastrophe, rampant consumerism – are symptoms of insular individualism in the first place. Far from developing some kind of utopian community with his daughter, then, it becomes clear almost immediately that their nation-state of two is opposed to any kind of community or collective impulse, even or especially as he imbues it with a universal significance and exemplarity as well. That combination of insularity with a blithely and oblivious “universal” address mimics the structure of films that celebrate this kind of hermeticism as well, since these are nearly always films and figures that are unthinkable outside the guise of bearded white masculinity, but which simultaneously set themselves against the supposed vagaries of identity politics to propose a transcendent and universal truth. In other words, Leave No Trace is prescient, from the outset, that Will is the kind of character who heads films about white privilege, and the waning of white privilege.
Those tendencies are only exacerbated when the local police force apprehend Will and Tom and bring them in to see if they can improve their living arrangements, since from the way Will responds you’d think that the coal face of police brutality in 2018 was intrusions upon the civil liberties of bearded white guys living in state parks. Whereas Will is teetering on the edge of parody in the opening act, it’s at this point that his outlook and lifestyle starts to feel genuinely unsympathetic, just as his point of view and perceptual lens starts to dissociate from that of the film. No doubt, we’re still seeing things from his perspective, even when he’s not in the scene, since this is also the first point at which he is separated from Tom, but Granik also chooses this very moment to denature that perspective, forcing us to occupy his mindset while alienating us from it at the same time. What emerges is a worldview in which the sheer existence of child protection services, like any government agency, is a cause for petulant disbelief, along with a vision of mainstream American society in which anybody not living off the grid is an idiotic purveyor of socialization. In many ways, that’s not such an uncommon worldview for a particular kind of back-to-basics white settler mentality, but in Granik’s hands it becomes a precursor to the kind of false consciousness that motivated the Unabomber and most other white male American terrorists – namely, that only white men living in the wildnerness have any insight into how the system works.
In other words, being brought into contact with child protection services confronts Tom with his entitlement, his arrogance, and even his privilege, which might sound like a strange way to describe someone living in a state park, but is as much a matter of his affect and bearing as of his access to material goods. In one of her most trenchant critiques, Barbara Johnson noted that victimhood and power are always connected – not in the sense that genuine victims get to speak, but that those invested with the power to speak always claim victimhood as their right. Something of that privileged access to victimhood comes across here, as Will exudes an insatiable self-pity and a tragic aura that quickly exceeds his life story – or, rather, exceeds any kind of backstory that could be provided before we even learn anything about his past. In fact, his past is more or less irrelevant, since the point is that this tragic self-image is inextricable from the white privilege that makes this kind of defiant individualism available to him in the first place, as evinced in his refusal to actually associate with the genuine urban homeless, instead confining himself to the other “settlers” inhabiting the state park where he lives. What ensues, there, is thus more like a gentrified homelessness sanctioned by the very public sphere he despises, a backdrop where he can perform his individualism while ignoring the public funds upon which it ultimately depends.
That sense of entitlement, and the way it alienates Will from Tom, only grows over the second act, which sees them move to a property in upstate Oregon, after a wealthy benefactor hears about their story in the news and takes inspiration from Will’s back-to-basics lifestyle and outlook. Even this is a kind of privilege, since it’s just as hard to imagine a woman, black person, queer person or any other non-white-male subject being given this break as it is to imagine any other subject position as the protagonist of the film. Once there, however, Will grows more petulant than ever, greeting every opportunity or donation the local community provides him with scathing ingratitude, and treating them like idiots for good measure, all the while expressing his anger at having to “adapt” to his new lifestyle through compromises like “wearing their clothes,” despite the fact he was more than content to purchase his and Tom’s attire at supermarkets when they were living back in Portland. The first thing he does when he arrives in their modest new cabin is to put away the television, but in his hands this feels less like a radical stance against mass media and more like a willful gesture of ignorance, a way of shutting off every component of the world that doesn’t necessarily receive him, and his arrogation of pathos, as its affective epicentre.
Part of what makes these sequences so powerful is that Will is never the least bit aggressive or even all that assertive in his pronouncements and behaviours, as violent and antisocial as they are. Indeed, part of their violence lies in his downtrodden, withdrawn, brooding assumption of victimhood, which is even more pervasive in this second act, and totally consuming in the third. Yet for all his sullen resistance, this new community provides him with the real version of who he actually is, since for all he might resent having to prune local Christmas trees into just the right shape for mass consumption, they’re really no different from his state park sojourn in the way their rural overtones are ultimately, kitschily complicit in the broader landscape of American consumerism and mass media. Similarly, this second act confronts him with the real version of what he is fast becoming to his daughter – not a visionary, but just a bit of a bummer, as evinced in the guilt trip he gives her for staying out after dark on the first evening she meets a new friend. Throughout these sequences, the most confronting prospect for Will is that he is normcore – he has turned conventionality into a personal brand – leading to an abrupt shift in which he bundles Tom out in the night and back to Portland, in an effort to discover a real wilderness experience.
That gesture is pretty violent, ideologically, but it also marks a dramatic rupture into the film, which is just starting to settle into a groove over this second act, partly because it provides Tom with the first genuinely communal and social environment she’s yet experienced. For a moment, it feels as if the film could should just settle into this space for the rest of its duration, but that’s quickly quashed by Will’s decision to leave, and his willingness to sacrifice his daughter to his own ideals of fatherhood. That gesture becomes even starker once they’ve bused and hitchhiked their way up into the mountains, where he drags Tom through a brutally cold night that gives her frostbite, and almost kills her, before they arrive at an abandoned cabin, proof that even now Will hasn’t arrived at the fantasy of total isolation that he credits himself with being able to inhabit. This proves to be the furthest he can get, however, since while he might set out for provisions the following morning, he doesn’t make it more than about fifty metres, collapsing and nearly dying himself, before Tom alerts some local hikers, who turn out to live at a nearby caravan park.
This leads into the third part of the film, which takes place at this caravan park, whose owner, Dale, played by Dale Dickey, allows Will and Tom to stay until they get back on their feet. Following on from the transitional space of the second act, the film now entirely dissociates itself from Will’s perception and mindset, instead following Tom as she gets to know the residents of this new environment. Right away, it’s clear that this community subsists upon the land in a more authentic and modest way from any she’s encountered or envisaged so far, and it’s no coindicence that the prominence of women in this community also brings it the furthest from the paternal authority that has shaped Tom’s entire lifeworld, as she now becomes the main source of knowledge and information, explaining one aspect of the community after another to her father as he recovers from his near-death experience in bed. Moreover, it becomes clear that Will’s individualist outlook was always a fantasy, and that depending on this broader communal imperative paradoxically puts less pressure on other people than his individualism ever did. Even the one outlier in this community – a man who moved to the mountains years ago, and hasn’t been seen since – is still dependent on the community, coming down each week, in solitude, to collect a bag of food that Dale leaves out for him. That rupture of Will’s individualist fantasies produces a shift in the tone and style of the film as well, as the fecund greens and Walden-esque botanical vistas of the opening act now segue into a more pragmatic and matter-of-fact proximity to nature – less vivid, to be sure, but also embedded in an actual rural landscape, rather than the amenities and aesthetics of the Portland Metro Area and its public reserves.
It’s clear, then, that Will’s rugged individualism has reached its absolute limits in this community, which forces him to confront the enormous amount of communal labour required for him to have that fantasy of individual exemption in the first place. Rather than accept even the smallest bit of assistance, however, he becomes even more involuted, withdrawing all character, affect and expressiveness until he is nothing more than a blank signifier for an insatiable and antisocial paternal impulse. By the time he drags Tom into the wilderness once again, it’s clear that his agenda has not only been totally dissociated from her needs, but from any form of relationality or sociality, reduced to an entirely solipsistic, self-regarding state of mind that’s ultimately no different to self-erasure. After all, Tom was ultimately an impediment to his mission of paternalistic and individualistic self-realisation, and he’s accordingly willing to discard her here, resulting in the most extraordinary gesture of the film – the gesture that cements its meaning – as she bids him farewell at the threshold of the caravan park before heading back to join the community. While there’s no malice, no anger and no resentment on Tom’s part, there is an emphatic realisation that her father can only signify now as a blank symbol, a notional presence, resulting in a beautiful epilogue in which she takes on the role of leaving out food for the solitary man up in the mountains, in the hope that one day it might be her father who learns to return to community in this provisional and hesitant way. In that gesture – attachment to the idea of her father combined with a stoic refusal to engage with the reality – lies the tacit brilliance of the film, which never discards the idea of white fatherhood enough to even imbue it with the oppositional defiance that has been Will’s calling card and emotional signature all along.
In other words, Granik manages to capture something inherently antisocial about the institution of white fatherhood in the United States while never vilifying that antisociality enough for it to become a badge of honour or defiance in itself. Instead, the final effect is sad, but not insurmountable, ending on a note of resilience rather than resentment as far as Tom is concerned. For such a powerful gesture, it might seem a bit churlish to take issue with small details, but I did also wonder whether it was necessary for Granik to diagnose these final moments in terms of Will’s mental health, and suicidal ideation. To me, this wasn’t all that different from attributing the actions of white terrorists to mental health rather than political ideology, since even without a harrowing backstory Will’s monstrosity would already be inherent in the subject position he adopts from the outset, which is ultimately that of a white separatist, and a proto-white terrorist, no matter how lugubriously he frames himself as an object of pathos. You could even say that the film provides him with exactly what he wants in abstracting him in this way, although Granik’s dexterity does consist partly in preventing that pathos ever attaining any real grandeur or gravity either. A small quibble, then, with a film that so brilliantly and effortlessly punctures white identity politics as they stand in the United States at the current moment, while playing to white fantasies of wilderness every bit as eloquently and eerily as Winter’s Bone.