Leave No Trace (2018): Movie Ending & Theme Explained: Leave No Trace is an outstanding portrayal of the complexities of a father-daughter relationship. It uses silence as an effective tool to communicate the deep-seated anxieties and trauma of an ex-military father and the incisive, empathetic outlook of the daughter. The plot follows them as they live in the woods, surviving on the knowledge of her father’s military training.

The authorities discover their camp and try to reinstate them back into the community, but the father coaxes the daughter to run away with him. When he goes out for food-searching, her father is seriously injured. There she starts living in an RV and gains insight into her father’s penchant for living away from civilization, which makes her take decisive action.

It beautifully constructs this scenario in detail, with frames lingering on their quest for survival with an eagle’s eye. Most of the information hides beneath the labyrinthine catacombs of purposefully obscure dialogues. So it demands close scrutiny, which I intend to do in the following article.

Leave No Trace (2018)  Plot Synopsis and Summary:

Tom (Thomasin Mackenzie) lives with her father, Will, in a makeshift camp in the woods. She helps him to collect materials needed for their daily chores – figs, thickets, wood, and tapes. She also cooks food occasionally and files wood with her father. Will makes her go on drills with him to practice leaving no trace. Through these sessions, they continue living undetected.

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One night she talks to her father about her favorite color, yellow. He tells her it was a favorite of her mother’s, too, to which she replies that she wished her mother would remember her. Will says that she would want to do the same.

The next day, they go to a hospital where they treat war veterans who suffer from PTSD. There she meets a man who sells equipment to help family members deal with stressful symptoms in veterans. They pick up some groceries and return to the forest. There, Will sells his medicine to another veteran.

While Tom is reading a book near the bushes, a man nearby suspects someone’s presence and asks to confirm if anyone is there, she hides in the undergrowth. Later, while playing chess with her father, they are ambushed by the cops. They take both of them into their custody and confiscate their items.

They undergo psychological tests separately under an expert’s supervision. Will’s test makes him visibly uncomfortable, which causes the expert to intervene. They suggest an alternative housing accommodation which Will is initially hesitant to accept. But seeing they have got no other option, they acquiesce.

They shift to the new place and reluctantly adjust to their surroundings. Tom tells her dad that she saw the person who reported them to the authorities. Will gets a job cutting trees while the woman who found Tom in the woods enrolls her in a school. She learns to ride a bicycle with some help from Will.

Leave No Trace Ending - HOF
Ben Foster as Will in Leave No Trace (2018)

They join the church congregation to blend in with their neighbors so that no one bothers them about their previous lives. Tom befriends a guy who rears a rabbit for a pet show. When she returns home late from that meeting, Will gets worried. She suggests buying a phone – an idea that Will instantly rejects. He asserts they have already adapted to the best of their ability, but Tom shares her apprehensions about attending school.

After a while, both run away from the house and board a bus, much to Tom’s disapproval. They leave the bus at an eatery and convince a truck driver to give them a lift. When a forest emerges on the roadside, they ask the driver to halt the truck and deboard. They go inside the woods, where Tom’s socks get soaked. The cold temperature numbs her feet until she cannot walk. Will comforts her and warms her feet.

They stumble upon a cabin where they take temporary shelter. Will leaves to look for stuff they can use, but he does not return. Tom starts searching for him and finds his unconscious body clubbed over large branches near the riverside. She finds some people crossing by and asks for help. They take him to a house and treat him.

Tom requests the woman not to call anyone for help. Despite initial reluctance, she complies. Blane, an ex-medic in the army, advises Tom to look after him as he may not walk properly for some time. They are provided temporary lodging in an RV by the woman, Dale.

A woman beekeeper introduces Tom to bees who have developed friendliness towards her. Her father recovers slowly, and Blane advises Tom to keep his dog with her for some time. He confides in her that the dog helped him with nightmares and comforted him in troubled times. She follows his advice and brings the dog with her. She requests Dale to let her rent the place for a longer time, to which she agrees after consideration. Dale leaves to put some food for an unknown stranger in the forest.

She tells her father that she rented the place. They watch the nightly music session in front of the lodge nearby. Her father again tells her to leave this RV and go somewhere else. She protests but eventually follows him. After going some distance, she stops midway and confronts her dad about his true intentions for these wanderings. They have an emotional farewell, and both go their separate ways. A few days later, Tom comes with a bag and hangs it by the same tree Dale used earlier to leave the items for that unknown forest dweller.

Why was Will living with Tom in the forest?

The dialogues never explicitly mention the reasons for his choice, but there are hints all over the place for the audience to pick up on. He is a war veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This experience has severely impaired his interaction with people. He has started hiding from people out of fear of being driven by their conformity, like carrying out orders on the war front. He harbors a deep mistrust of the government and the society that controls so many aspects of our lives, except thoughts. His failure to assimilate with the civilians has led to this decision in which Tom became an unquestioned participant.

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Why did the questions in the psychological test disturb Will?

Will had been living with his daughter in the woods for a long time, presumably, after the end of his military service. He was uprooted from where he felt safe even though he had no roof over his head. Hence, a deep probe into his mind made him even more anxious. He has been so busy preparing for the daily needs of the wild that he did not address his deep-rooted trauma. He had also stopped his medication, selling them to a fellow camper. Thus questions about the rationale behind his actions and his personality troubled him.

Why did Will leave the housing shelter provided by the authorities?

After serving in the war, Will developed a deep suspicion and mistrust of government authorities. He feared his independence would end and turn him into a stooge living according to their prescribed norms and conditions. He did not want this to happen, so he took off from the lodging back to the forest.

Leave No Trace (2018) Themes Analysed:

Trauma shapes our bond with our loved ones

Leave No Trace Ending Explained
Thomasin McKenzie as Tom in Leave No Trace (2018)

Will raised Tom in the forest, and she never questioned his unorthodox choice of living. For her, it was the natural way of living, as she did not know otherwise. She was too small to understand that her father’s decision resulted from his unresolved trauma. But, as she grows into adolescence and resettles into a home provided by the welfare board, she starts to enjoy social relations. Her father, who had isolated himself and Tom from the world beyond the woods, resents this. He also fails to realize how enforcing his ways affects her daughter, who wants to connect with people and live like others. This clash creates tension in their relationship as Tom gains more insight into her father’s psyche, and they decide to go their separate ways.

Growing up with increased awareness of self

Initially, Tom is happy to help her father with his chores in the forest. She has no qualms about it whatsoever. On leaving the woods and living with civilization, her viewpoint changes slowly. She discovers her affinity for pet animals and insists her father adapts to the situation by embracing technology. Will’s motivation to remain in the forest becomes confusing for her. She cannot see any merit in such thinking.

 However, she accompanies him, playing the role of the dutiful daughter she is supposed to play. She cares for Will and knows that he is in some kind of pain, the extent of which slowly unravels as she meets other people who went through a similar ordeal.

Eventually, she realizes that she is not making decisions for herself but merely following in the footsteps of Will. Her needs are different as she is another individual with an identity separate from her father. To forge her path, she has to let go of his ways and find hers. She also has to let Will be as he is. He cannot live the same way as Tom since he has to fight his own demons.

But she doesn’t necessarily have to do the same thing as she has got her own struggles. She knows that her needs and desires are slowly cementing inside her as she grows into a woman. To know herself better and let her father heal, she has to embark on a personal journey of self-discovery.

Community vs. Isolation

Fear makes Will hide in the woods. He dislikes communal living and wants to be left alone. On the other hand, Tom slowly learns that she enjoys companionship. The film does not side with any viewpoint. It only shows how these two viewpoints cannot survive in tandem. Both have to choose what’s right for them according to their perception.

It uses the metaphor of working bees to illustrate the point. The beekeeper tells Tom that bees don’t sting as it makes them perish. They remain comfortable around people they recognize, like the beekeeper herself. Later, Tom tells Will while opening the hive box that Humans can survive 500 stings and casually lets them settle over her body. Will just smiles back.

It shows Tom’s love for warmth shared amongst the community members. At the same time, Will appreciate her efforts with a smile but doesn’t partake in her affection for bees. The bees themselves are organisms that need each other to survive. Tom may be like one of them, but Will is not. They have to accept it and let go of each other without imposing one’s lifestyle choice over the other.

Leave No Trace (2018) Ending, Explained:

Why did Tom leave Will midway in the forest?

Tom understood that Will needed to live away from people and not herself. She enjoyed the gatherings and people in Dale’s lodgings and did not want to go. But she knew that Will needed this style of forest camping to heal himself and deal with his issues. So, she thought the best possible outcome for both would be to go their separate ways, no matter how painful it would be for them.

Why did Tom hang a bag from the tree?

Dale told Tom that she periodically left food items and other essentials for a man in the forest. She never met that man but knew he was there as she would later find the bag empty. Similarly, Tom stuffs the bag with essentials her father would need and hangs it by the tree for him to find those things. It becomes the last symbol of their connection and their only means of communication to know the other is safe and sound.

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Leave No Trace (2018) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia
Leave No Trace (2018) Movie Cast: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Peter Rock
Other Details of Leave No Trace (2018) Movie: Genre – Drama, Runtime – 1h 48m
Where to watch Leave No Trace

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