In 2010, director Debra Granik’s astonishing second feature, “Winter’s Bone,” put her on the international map and more than a few critics’ top 10 lists for the year. It’s now 2018. Where has she been all these years?
Part of the answer is the woods—more specifically the secluded acreage of Cascadia State Park. That’s where “Leave No Trace” begins, and where Will (Ben Foster), a widowed father, has fashioned a home. Granik thrusts us into the lifestyle of self-sufficiency he shares with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), one of foraging mushrooms for food, preserving rainwater for drinking, building campfires for light and warmth, and, hopefully avoiding the wild things while they sleep side by side in a modest tent.
We’re left to guess at their motivations, at least initially: Is this a father-daughter bonding trip? Are they post-apocalyptic survivors eking out a living on the margins? Neither are true—as we soon learn, Portland hums along just fine, with its looming industrial towers and congested highways. No, this is a chosen, willful isolation, and it’s been going on for some time. Like the children in another recent survivalism movie, the more buoyant “Captain Fantastic,” Tom has probably never touched a cell phone.
Granik never spells out Will’s rationale, which may frustrate viewers who prefer tidy backstories. We learn through dribs and drabs that he’s a military veteran, and there’s an implication that his self-imposed exile is the result of an overburdened, insufficiently helpful VA system. We can imagine the anguish it took, and continues to take, for a formerly well-adjusted man to retreat from society, and that imagination is sufficient.
Will’s actions are illegal—one cannot just live in a public park—and it isn’t until he and Tom are arrested by park rangers that “Leave No Trace” becomes, for Tom, a voyage of self-discovery. It is at once an unorthodox coming-of-age story and a captivating road movie that treats Cascadia with the same local color and sensitive detail that made the Ozarks spring so vividly to life in “Winter’s Bone.”
There’s a lot of compassion and sheer goodness in the supporting players of “Leave No Trace.” As Will and Tom are processed by authorities, reunited, re-homed and reintegrated into society, they are surrounded by networks of people with their best interests at heart. But Will is not easily domesticated, and even as the endlessly curious Tom begins to enjoy the trappings of their new lives—the boys, the socializing, the church service, the donated bicycle, perhaps even a phone—Will steals her away, headed for another clandestine journey into the great green void.
A switch happens in “Leave No Trace,” but it happens gradually, like a dimmer light slowly illuminating. This film is about radical self-reliance as child abuse, and about off-the-grid yearning as a form of addiction. It’s an inherently codependent sort of addiction, because Tom, being a minor, is necessarily dependent on her father. The heart of the movie is Tom’s painful awakening that this needn’t be her life.
Granik writes and directs with a sublime poetry of economy. Much is implied by a line, a silence, an insert shot. This approach lends itself to performances of subtle internalization, and Foster and McKenzie are sensational vessels of unspoken suffering and self-actualization. McKenzie is especially exquisite, her quivering lip damming back the tears that many in her audience won’t be so able to block. She seems to mature at least 5 years—physically, emotionally, mentally—in the movie’s short narrative duration.
It’s Foster’s character I may remember most, however. He strikes me as a microcosm for a certain kind of American about which we rarely hear, unless it’s a case so extreme as the Maine hermit Christopher Knight, who lived undiscovered in the woods for 27 years. I would suspect, with the amount of pain and depression blanketing the country, that there are tens of thousands of people who are like Will or who wish to be like him—a lost generation who can’t see the forest for the trees.
On the other end of the cinematic spectrum this week, we have “Skyscraper,” an audience-pandering cocktail of “Die Hard,” “Taken” and “The Towering Inferno” that strips the novelty from all three.
Dwayne Johnson’s Will Sawyer is the sort of hero that only fanciful screenwriters conceive: a tattooed, tough-guy former Marine and FBI Hostage Rescue leader who is also an engineering nerd who doesn’t know how to tie a tie. Oh, and he has a prosthetic leg from a botched rescue mission a decade earlier that’ll come in handy later.
Having embraced domestic bliss with his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twin children, Will’s job is, finally, free of danger: He’s a safety consultant for high-rise buildings. As he informs a former colleague, “I haven’t touched a gun in 10 years.”
His latest and most lucrative project has taken him to Hong Kong, where he’s presenting his assessment of billionaire magnate Zhao Min Zhi’s gleaming folly: The Pearl, the world’s tallest building, with its own public park, shopping center and residences. It’s a good thing that everything is majestically up to code, so much so that when a minor fire breaks out on the 65thfloor, Zhao comforts his business partners with the famous last words, “We’re perfectly safe here, I assure you.”
The Pearl is, quite transparently, a vertical Titanic waiting for its inevitable iceberg. It arrives in the form of Roland Moller’s vaguely European mercenary—“the hired muscle for three of Hong Kong’s biggest crime syndicates”—who is, like pretty much everyone with a speaking part, straight out of Central Casting. It’s up to Will to use his natural strength, Marine training, hostage rescue experience and architectural know-how to save his wife and kids—one of whom is asthmatic, naturally—from being engulfed of flames, or falling 200 floors, or meeting a terrorist’s bullet.
This will require plenty of MacGuyverish solutions to impossible problems—duct tape is literally used more than once—each more knee-buckling than the last, the movie’s physics absurdly superhuman. Yet the film is curiously free of genuine suspense, because the mortality of its hero is never in doubt.
A B movie with an A movie budget, “Skyscraper” is airheaded disaster-flick boilerplate. In other words, expect a sequel.
“Leave No Trace” opens Friday at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Frank Theaters at Delray Marketplace, Cinemark Boynton Beach and other area theaters. “Skyscraper” opens Friday at most area theaters.