For some people, the pressure to assimilate into society becomes an inescapable prison. Two films at Sundance 2018, I Think We’re Alone Now and Leave No Trace, follow characters who simply refuse to yield to their jailors. Their path is one of independence, where the greatest luxuries are the quiet reassurance of their thoughts and the bounty provided by nature.
For Del (Peter Dinklage), the reluctant hero in I Think We’re Alone Now, isolation was not his choice. A mysterious condition afflicted the world, causing the simultaneous death of every man, woman, and child. All of them except for Del, that is. In an interesting twist on the usual post-apocalyptic melodrama, director Reed Morano (in her stunning cinematic debut), doesn’t make loneliness the hero’s overwhelming obsession. In fact, Del is perfectly content to be rid of the world.
“I felt lonely when it was me and 1,600 people in this town,” he laments. Indeed, it’s the end of the world and Del feels fine.
It’s hard to imagine any actor besides Dinklage playing Del. His quiet, intense demeanor and diminutive stature make him a target of society’s derision. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, which makes him impossible to easily categorize. Now the king of his own realm, Del makes all the rules and suffers no fools.
With slavish dedication, Del makes his daily rounds, which includes disposing of dead bodies, foraging for batteries, and fishing the local lake. It’s ironic that Del probably becomes a better citizen than he ever was before the apocalypse; the caretaker for a town that no longer exists.
His home is the library where he worked before the incident, and he still repairs damaged bindings and shelves the books in their appropriate home. It seems the only things to survive the apocalypse will be cockroaches and the Dewey decimal system.
And yet there lurks a yearning for companionship buried beneath the resentments of his past. He collects family photos from each empty home, exhaustively cataloging them in the library’s basement. When he shockingly bumps into another survivor — a plucky girl named Grace (Elle Fanning) — his anger over being disturbed is easily outweighed by his receptiveness for companionship.
Morano made her bones as a cinematographer and it really shows in I Think We’re Alone Now. She delights in a world without electricity, where she’s free to illuminate her characters and interiors with luxurious natural light. Every shadow and shaft of light punctuates the internal emotions of these characters as they antagonize and tantalize one another.
The sound design, too, is exquisite. Accentuated by Adam Taylor’s haunting score, Morano makes every sound meaningful. In what has essentially become a wilderness world, even the slightest sound demands our attention. When a dog barks in the distance, Del and Grace drop their usual routine to investigate. After all, what you don’t know might kill you.
Unfortunately, a troublesome plot twist in the third act finds Morano and screenwriter Mike Makowsky losing their narrative footing. While this twist bolsters the film’s themes about constructing worlds to accommodate our own insecurities, it also squanders the emotional currency between Del and Grace. The result is that I Think We’re Alone Now thoroughly engages, but misses the opportunity to be truly transcendent.
I Think We’re Alone Now Rating: 7
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace (2018) (Sundance FF 2018)
Will (Ben Foster), the survivalist father in Leave No Trace, also prefers isolation to society’s claustrophobic boundaries. While there’s no extinction-level event in Debra Granik’s gritty new feature, Will’s wounds are his own personal plague. His former platoon from the Middle East has been depleted by suicide, and while we never learn what exactly happened to Will during the war, his night terrors hint at some awful experiences.
Unable to play by society’s rules, Will takes his teenage daughter Tom (exciting newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) into the forest where they can live by their own rules. Perhaps Tom isn’t short for tomboy, but she can more than hold her own with dad in the wilderness. Hunkered down in a public forest near Portland, Oregon, Will and Tom live off what nature provides.
Tom has few misgivings about her makeshift home. She loves her father unconditionally and finds their lifestyle of simple subsistence to be a grand adventure.
“I’m hungry,” is about the loudest you’ll ever hear Tom protest.
That all changes when the two rugged individualists are forced back into proper society. Suddenly, Tom has alternative views to Will’s restrictive world. She makes friends and begins dreaming of a future that doesn’t involve killing game or scavenging for mushrooms. For Will, however, there’s no moving forward. There is no future. There is only the sustaining action that has become his life.
Leave No Trace isn’t for everyone. The deliberate pacing and languid plot will have many viewers squirming in their seat. Working from Peter Rock’s novel, Granik (Winter’s Bone, 2010) aims to create a world that has nothing to do with time, goals, or modern concerns. She succeeds by burying the audience in the minutiae of survival and stripping away all other distractions. We learn how to make shelters, cover our tracks, and build a fire. Nothing is left to waste, especially words, which are parsed out like precious food rations. Even the score is ditched, with the ambient rhythms of the forest serving as a soundtrack.
Like I Think We’re Alone Now, Leave No Trace is an immersive experience that makes good use of natural lighting. You won’t find anything here as daunting as The Revenant, but it’s every bit as gorgeous and the stakes are just as high. The performances by Foster and McKenzie, too, are anchored by uncompromising realism. Every facial expression and subtle movement become an instinctual method of communication. It’s impossible to see the lines between acting and naturalistic behavior.
Leave No Trace is a powerful statement about devotion, survival, and the interconnected threads that shape a society. Granik understands that these bonds between us are broken and re-shaped every day. When the willingness to repair those bonds is lost, the only refuge is a world of your own creation.
Leave No Trace Rating: 8