Leave No Trace (2018) - Film Review

Leave No Trace is not the type of film that I generally get really excited about. Ultra-realist pieces like this don’t give me all that much to chew on, and I love films with loads of texture. But the most appealing thing about Leave No Trace is that despite being a realist piece, it’s directed with serious intent. These moments where the directorial vision of Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) shows through are what elevate this already fantastic book adaptation into a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. This feat is all the more impressive as it takes place within the confines of a PG rating.  All of this makes Leave No Trace an unusually accessible, elevated film.


The themes that are at play in Leave No Trace could have been misused so easily. The use, and ownership of public land is a current political ethics issue that has surprising context in 2018 and especially in the pacific northwest where the film takes place. To Granik’s credit, and the films benefit, she doesn’t linger on this issue. This same critique could be applied to a wide variety of other themes in the film as well. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that Will (Ben Foster) endures in the film is so subtle, that it borders on subtext. This is very refreshing, as PTSD often becomes a defining, cornerstone characteristic in fiction and that ends up hiding the nuance the disorder actually brings. This makes Will an infinitely more compelling and understandable character because we understand him for who he is, not what his affliction may be. The same can be said of Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who after her capture could have easily been written as socially unprepared. Subverting that expectation makes Tom so much more interesting, and alive.

This is truly the heart of what makes Leave No Trace a great film—its focus on humanity, despite the surrounding details. Using those narrative elements as a backdrop to accentuate this larger discussion of humanity’s communal connection is perhaps not brilliant, but a case study of incredible story telling self-discipline. In this way, the minimalist, pragmatic ethic used by Will and Tom in the film is echoed in Granik’s guidance of the narrative. The PG rating feels like an extension of that as well. Anger never boils over and words are never wasted, even in the most passionate moments. Because of this, it’s hard to negatively critique Leave No Trace. It simply bites off exactly what it can chew and leaves the rest without more than a word or two.


In many ways, the film takes place between only two characters: Will and Tom. While both are fantastic (and McKenzie is truly incredible for her inexperience) Ben Foster is at his best in this film and it reflects the peak of acting in general. The nuance of his character is almost entirely an ever-present subconscious slow boil. His strong, incredibly self-disciplined presence breaks only in moments but when it does, you can see the almost physical battle taking place inside of him; trying to hold it all back. While Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s might shatter your expectations, Ben Foster is the fuel that’s firing the engine.

Most of the films that I end up loving, I love because of the elements that are unique to filmmaking. The visuals and sound playing off of the written narrative—the acting queues, framed with a specific angle and focal length. Despite there being plenty to discuss in Leave No Trace, there’s very little of that in the film. And even with that, this is still Granik’s best directorial work so far. Leave No Trace takes all of these disparate themes, and puts them in the same room together, but doesn’t force them to talk. It frames incredible acting performances within minimal expression and sets up large questions that it knows it can’t entirely answer, and doesn’t try to. This makes Leave No Trace a beautiful, realistic portrayal of the difficulties of living in modern society, and an intricate, artful film.

  1. First Impression: 92
  2. Lasting Impression: 70
  3. Technical Excellence: 60
  4. Coherence: 95

Overall: 79.25

Bret Hoy is the creator and co-editor of Monolith Medium, an award winning filmmaker, and writer. 

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