Review of Leave No Trace (2018)

Moving picture, 109 minutes

Seen in 2018.

Drama. It captures a lot of contemporary US culture: Perpetual distant war, wounded militarism and a stumbling, suicidal masculinity as the diffuse backdrop for a story whose foreground is wilderness, independence, freedom, mistrust (Will’s paranoia about “them”, the mainstream culture), pro-religious bias (Will’s reason for going to church), domestication (trimming Christmas trees to match expectations) etc. The opioid epidemic is not mentioned by that name but a trucker talks about it and Will is able to sell his benzos and other drugs, presumably because of it.

Thankfully, there are no villains in this working-class world, nor does the narrative touch the broken two-party system. Just like it uses seahorses and bees as metaphors for people, it tries to illustrate society through the small, concluding with generous, folksy, semi-homeless salt-of-the-earth types in RVs.

This is all nice, but despite “great American novel”/movie aspirations, the emphasis is on the drama, and Tom as an individual. She’s a child heroine: Pretty, courteous, intelligent, educated, weirdly even-tempered, not credible and not representative. The implication is that mainstream culture—which has not touched her—is as destructive as it feels to her father when he hides their TV. With typical puritanical fear, the film shies away from such subjects as her menarche. I do not prefer the rapey Light of My Life (2019); I like that there is no prurient threat from “them” and I like how Tom has adopted Will’s militaristic manner of speech: Clear, direct, short sentences, simple words, illustrating the depth of his influence. Still I felt very little for Tom’s plight.

As a meditation on US military failures and mental health, it’s obviously a lot smarter, more meaningful, more compassionate and more sincere than First Blood (1982), but it isn’t fundamentally different. The conventional drama is a very limited form. In this case it has not moved on very far from its Greek roots: Characters who are better than the audience, doomed to an ill fate (separation) by hamartia. For dubious US environmentalist drama I prefer Night Moves (2013).

moving picture fiction