Tag Archives: Debra Granik

Leave No Trace (Sundance 2018): Growing Beyond Your Parents

Somewhere in the middle of the woods, a father and his daughter live alone in what seems to be a permanent camp. It is soon revealed that Will (Ben Foster; Hell or High Water) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are actually living in a national park, far off the beaten path to avoid contact with patrons. They are mostly self-sufficient, taking only infrequent trips to the nearby city for basic tools when necessary, until Tom is spotted by a runner. The authorities later arrive to take them away and they are placed into state-sponsored housing and assistance programs. For the first time in her life, Tom is exposed to society and the possibilities it brings.

The pacific northwest setting envelops each scene. The trees tower over the cast with the tops far out of frame. They create a harsh beauty to Will and Tom’s living arrangements. The film doesn’t shy away from the rain either. The characters are palpably soaked and their camp feels worn with use.

As Will and Tom are taken in by government agencies, director Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) makes a small statement on their effectiveness. While their accommodations are good and the people assisting them care for their well-being, the mandated processes are shown to be ineffectual. Will has to take a comically long survey (400+ questions) that he is not mentally prepared for and Tom is immediately separated from him, her only companion. It may not be the focus of the film, but this slight commentary is welcome.

Tom’s growth to independence is well portrayed by McKenzie.

So often films examine parents dealing with difficult children, but here Granik is interested in the reverse scenario. As Will pulls them out of their generous state sponsored housing into more precarious situations, his actions raise doubts in his previously obedient daughter. Tom starts to realize that there is something beyond a desire to live outdoors going on with her dad. He has some sort of compulsion to get away from society and it soon revealed that Will is a veteran, likely suffering from PTSD. This is incredibly complex subject matter, but Granik is able to weave through it as Tom gains a better understanding of what she needs versus what her father needs.

Leave No Trace is a film about quiet, gradual realizations. Tom’s growth into an adult is a steady change. McKenzie’s performance is subtle and understated as she takes note of each red flag. Her arguments with her father are compassionate, honest pleadings rather than the shouts of an angsty teen and the composure she displays is impressive, as are her interactions with her father. Foster and McKenzie exhibit the unspoken understanding that comes with close relationships and their affection for each other is obvious. Typically, when there is a story of a man alone with his daughter in isolation there are heinous actions involved, but not here. In the face of Will’s PTSD driven actions, they are still a loving family. As Tom matures and must reevaluate her relationship with her traumatized father, hard, adult lessons are learned. Granik succeeds by making Tom’s journey to understanding her father gentle and nuanced.

4/5 stars.

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.