Ben Foster

Leave No Trace

11/07/18

Debra Granik’s latest offering is Leave No Trace, a movie every bit as haunting and memorable as her 2010 Best Picture contender, Winter’s Bone. Based on Peter Rock’s novel, My Abandonment, this is a slow, thoughtful and affecting piece, a considered exploration of what it means to live outside society, how much pressure there is to conform, to opt in.

Ben Foster is Will, an army veteran with recurring nightmares and an aversion to bureaucracy. He lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), in the wilds of Oregon’s Forest Park, which – although not far from the state’s bustling capital of Portland – is a vast, unpopulated area, dense with trees, and far removed from the ‘civilisation’ embraced by the city-dwellers. Of course they have to venture into town sometimes – Will picks up his prescription drugs from the veterans’ clinic, then sells them so that he can buy supplies of rice and beans and chocolate. But essentially they are survivalists, sleeping in a small tent, cooking over open fires, foraging for much of what they eat. They read, they play chess, they fend for themselves. They also practise being invisible, enacting ‘drills’ where they try to trace one another, preparing for an inevitable attempt from the outside world to capture them and draw them in.

When that outside world does invade, however, it proves to be a strong adversary, with teams of police and tracker dogs; Will and Tom cannot escape. Reluctantly, they leave their camp, and undergo a series of psychological tests to determine where they should be placed. Everyone they meet is kindly and polite; they are treated well. But they are not allowed to live the life they choose, and must try to fit in, whatever they believe. A well-meaning farmer (Jeff Kober) reads about them in the press and offers them use of a small house on his land. In return, Will must work for him, pruning, chopping and packing Christmas trees, in a not-so-subtle metaphor for the way his own true nature is being curtailed. The serried ranks of fir are so very different from the dense, lush forest they have left behind, and Will is desperately miserable. Ben Foster’s quiet embodiment of misery is one of the best things about this film: on the surface, he is doing what he’s asked, drawing little attention to himself. But it’s no surprise when he packs his bags, when he tells Tom that they are moving on.

Tom, though, is less elated to be leaving. She’s a teenage girl; she loves her dad and enjoys her life with him, but she’s learning to appreciate other people’s company; she’s excited – if nervous – about starting school. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s performance is remarkable, as understated as Ben Foster’s, and devastatingly engaging. She doesn’t say much about how she feels, but it shows in her eyes, in her trembling chin.

At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story: Tom is growing up, growing away. And the life Will needs has little place for compromise; even a rural trailer park in Washington, run by the kindly Dale (Dale Dickey) is too structured, too populated for him to endure. So Tom is faced with a heartbreaking choice.

This is a gentle but fiercely intelligent study of what it means to be human and how we interact within our world. Will has been profoundly affected by the war he has fought in; he is a product of the society he now rejects. It’s not hard to understand how the simple beauty of nature is balm to his soul, and the cinematography substantiates that sense of wellbeing, the lush greenery embracing him and Tom in a verdant hug, as intimate and knowable as it is boundless and strange.

A lovely film, and well worth seeking out.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Hell or High Water

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30/09/16

Brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are industriously robbing a series of small banks in West Texas and going to great lengths to conceal all evidence of their crimes. They aren’t doing it for the usual reasons, though, but in a desperate attempt to pay off a crippling loan on their late mother’s ranch, in order to secure the future of Toby’s two sons from his failed marriage. When the robberies come to the attention of aging Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, (Jeff Bridges), he resolves to solve one last case before he retires…

Hell Or High Water is a searing look at the underbelly of America, where ordinary people struggle to make ends meet and where the real criminals (at least in the view of writer Taylor Sheridan) are the bankers, who make a rich living from foreclosing on those who can no longer afford to pay for their homes. It’s a side of the USA we rarely glimpse in movie theatres and for that at least, it deserves our attention. There’s plenty here to enjoy. Bridges excels as the crusty-as-last-month’s-tortillas lawman, forever bickering with his Native American partner, Alberto (Gil Parker), while lamenting a way of life that seems as doomed as the ranchers we glimpse herding their cattle away from a raging brushfire. And can we really take wholeheartedly against the Tanner brothers, when they are in such a desperate plight?

This is an unapologetically elegiac story, as stripped and spare as the desert landscapes in which the events take place – but as with Sheridan’s previous script, Sicario, it’s almost exclusively a man’s world and you’ll have to look very hard indeed to spot a properly developed female character. Forget the Bechdel test – all we are offered here is a parade of hookers, harpies and harridans – a shame, because just like Sicario, this is an otherwise assured production, strong on action and the hard bitten verbal interplay between its main characters.

The ending hints at unfinished business but wisely leaves us wanting closure. It’s a lean, taut action movie but the inclusion of some decent female characters would have lent it more depth, and assured it a higher score from yours truly. It’s good, but ultimately a bit of a missed opportunity.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Program

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06/11/15

Lance Armstrong was the consummate all-American hero. He famously overcame testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour De France seven times in a row. Along the way, he founded a cancer charity, became a spokesman for the underdog, inspired people to excel and made millions from sponsorship and endorsements. It was all based upon a lie. He was using performance enhancing drugs to achieve his spectacular results and when the truth finally came out, his glorious career lay in tatters.

All this, of course, is well known. Now here’s Stephen Frears biopic, which dramatises the story. What it is, is a stripped-down, turbo-charged version of the events, but it’s light on truth and even lighter on detail. We first meet Armstrong (Ben Foster)  when he’s in his 20s, when he realises pretty quickly that he’s never going to become a winner in his chosen sport, unless he joins in with the practise of doping, something that most of his competitors seem to be well versed in. He makes friends with journalist David Walsh (Chris O Dowd) who is initially a fan; but when Armstrong starts to easily win races that he’s previously failed at, alarm bells start to go off in Walsh’s head. The problem is, why do his fellow journalists fail to detect something fishy going on? Soon, Armstrong and Walsh are bitter enemies.

The main reason to see The Program is to relish Ben Fosters’ extraordinary performance in the title role. His depiction of an obsessive man consumed with hubris is quite extraordinary and the fact that he physically resembles Armstrong is just the icing on the cake. But back to the film’s shortcomings. For us to fully appreciate Armstong’s fall from grace, it would be necessary to learn more about his private life. But this is simply airbrushed over. A five year marriage to Kristen Richard is reduced to a single scene of them walking down the aisle together. There’s no sign of the three children they had. Likewise, his year long engagement to musician Sheryl Crow. The only mention of her is that the two of them are ‘friends’. And finally, his relationship with longterm girlfriend Anna Hanson, (who he’s still with) isn’t even mentioned, let alone the two kids they had together.

Stephen Frears is a veteran director, so I can’t believe he’s simply chosen to skip over such important details. Could it be that certain people didn’t want to be involved? At any rate, The Program is perfectly watchable, but it feels suspiciously like the edited highlights of a movie – the full impact of his disgrace fails to come across, largely because we don’t see the repercussions it has on those who loved him. So, in a strange way, the film is as much of a cheat as Armstrong himself.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly enjoyable fare. But you’re left with the conviction that it could so easily have been something much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney