Debra Granik’s films — Down to the Bone, Stray Dog, and Leave No Trace — focus on individuals who struggle to navigate an unfriendly social support system in an attempt to get help. This is the fourth piece in our Special Issue on Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which is now available as an eBook.
Director Debra Granik’s entire career has been about questioning conventional images of American white poverty. “The White Working Class” has been an American national obsession since the 2016 presidential election, with numerous articles and books dedicated to diagnosing and explaining this group to the imagined “norm” of upper-middle class Americans. White working class people are often treated as polarized archetypes: they’re either mythologized as the heart and soul of America or demonized as the unintelligent and bigoted, responsible for the nation’s ills. Granik avoids such stark characterisation and offers a more patient and detailed look at this particular demographic. Instead of attempting to create empathy for these characters by emphasising the horror of their situation and preaching to the audience, Granik makes us feel for them by involving us in the full, complex dimension of their experience.Director Debra Granik's entire career has been about questioning conventional images of American white poverty.Click To Tweet
Granik’s films range widely, but they all share alienated protagonists who are barely hanging on, lack social support, and often, suffer from post-war trauma. These deeply flawed characters are nevertheless trying their hardest to be kind. Though Granik is primarily known for her Academy Award Best Picture nominee Winter’s Bone (2010), that film sacrifices some empathy for genre film tropes. Actor Ben Foster cites her lesser-known films — Down to the Bone (2004) and the documentary Stray Dog (2014) — as key to signing on to her latest project, Leave No Trace, which picks up where these two more underseen films leave off. Down to the Bone, Stray Dog, and Leave No Trace all focus on individuals who struggle to navigate an unfriendly social support system in an attempt to get help. These systems, however, may be indifferent or outright hostile, as can the communities around Granik’s protagonists.
Down to the Bone
Down to the Bone shifts the blame of addiction from the individual to the larger social context that produces addicts. Granik isn’t interested in addiction itself, but in its contextual roots: her portrayal of Irene (Vera Farmiga) is unusual because we only see her at moments when she functions:. The only hint of her addiction is her look of perpetual exhaustion. Yet she’s under so much stress — from her manager’s criticism to her inability to pay the bills — that her exhaustion may not be just from drug use. Irene’s addiction is so striking because Irene herself seems so normal. She is introduced as a caring mother, helping her children get ready to go trick or treating. But just before they depart, she shocks us by doing a line a cocaine in the bathroom. Such scenes combat many of the myths about drug users — that they are lazy or selfish and that being high looks like wild and erratic behaviour. Instead, Irene cares deeply for others and attempts to do everything that is expected of her. Granik’s portrayal asks us to re-assess what a drug addict looks like and realize that it may not be obvious when a casual acquaintance has an addiction.Down to the Bone shifts the blame of addiction from the individual, to the larger social context that produces addicts.Click To Tweet
While Irene makes great efforts to get clean, each step to get “help” adds yet another obstacle to an already difficult life. She has to leave rehab after two weeks because she has run out of her vacation time from work, and it’s certainly not something for which she can request time off. Shortly after she returns, the store manager reprimands her for her slower performance at the checkout and pushes for an explanation: “I can’t help you if I don’t know.” But when Irene admits she used to be faster because she worked high, the manager fires her. Knowing didn’t produce empathy but rather a justification for to fire her. She loses her income in an already tight financial situation.
Irene only finally receives help after being arrested for possession, but this support may be incompatible with a job and family responsibilities: she must attend nearly daily counselling sessions or else be sent to state prison. As her court appointed lawyer stresses, “the burden is on you.” It is such burdens that pushed Irene to drugs in the first place. Her journey through cleaning up has only made her life substantially more difficult when an ideal rehab plan, which she never receives, would address why she turned to drugs to cope in the first place.
Stray Dog is the portrait of another person let down by the system, but one who has actually managed to find some peace and order in his life through an unexpected support system — bikers who are fellow veterans. The documentary follows Ron Hall, a trailer park manager in a rural Missouri town who Granik met when he auditioned for a small role in Winter’s Bone. Ron is a large, imposing biker, clad in a heavily patched leather vest; Granik was fascinated with the kindness she saw beneath his rough exterior and approached him to be the subject of her first documentary. In the film, Ron explains that his newfound compassion is an attempt to atone for a dark past during the Vietnam War; he is deeply troubled by the atrocities he participated in. In a haunting scene, he tells his therapist, “Am I somebody who is going to go out and mutilate a human body? I guess I am.”Stray Dog is the portrait of another person let down by the system, but one who has actually managed to find some peace and order in his life through an unexpected support system - bikers who are fellow veterans.Click To Tweet
Stray Dog is Granik’s most hopeful film because it shows the type of community the people in her other films need. As Ron tells a woman who lost her daughter in Iraq, he could only find his way out of the terrible situation of his past with tremendous help — not offered by the Veterans’ Affairs support system but through a biker community. When Ron speaks about his past on camera, he emphasizes that he spent decades being lost without medical and psychological support. He realizes he was hardly alone in this experience. And as Ron talks about how America is still in war and no one who sees combat comes back unscarred, he emphasizes the problem is not getting any better. If America as a society doesn’t have to take responsibility for this trauma, then there is no motivation to stop the wars that produce such trauma.
Leave No Trace
In Leave No Trace, Granik weaves together her prior themes of unhelpful social services and untreated war trauma to show how someone might come to perceive the whole of society as inherently hostile, and decide to abandon it entirely. As a devoted parent struggling with post-war trauma, Will (Ben Foster) combines elements of Irene and Ron. But unlike them, Will is no longer even a member of the working poor; he’s unable to work at all because of the trauma from one of America’s largest employers, the military. He is unable to function in society because the everyday sounds of machinery and technology trigger panic attacks. All he wants is to live a simple life in the forest with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). However, as a social worker tells him, “it is illegal to live on public land.” Once they’re discovered, Will and Tom are thrust back into the conventional world Will views as so threatening.In Leave No Trace, Granik weaves together her prior themes of unhelpful social services and untreated war trauma to show how someone might come to perceive the whole of society as inherently hostile, and decide to abandon it entirely.Click To Tweet
Although the functionaries Will and Tom encounter through social services are compassionate, the rigid policy they must follow does not allow for personalized care. While living in the forest, Will’s only real contact with the social safety net is through Veteran’s Affairs, where he’s prescribed addictive medication rather than offered treatment for his trauma; we hear murmurs among other homeless veterans that the medication is ineffective anyway. After he and Tom are turned out of their forest idyll and forced to return to society, Will trades one bad system for a different set of problems with Social Services. Social Services does help Will to find a home and job, but its methods are often cold and dehumanizing, rarely tailored to his abilities or interests. A mental health assessment is done through a computerized voice. Fortunately, the man montoritoring the test realizes that this only further disorients Will, and helps him to complete the test offline — but the difficult test must still be completed.
“Normal” society requires domination of nature, recalling Will’s rigidly hierarchical military past and fulfilling his perception of society as an inherently violent, “dog eat dog” environment. To retain custody of his daughter — the one person in the world Will knows and loves — he’s made to take a job on a Christmas tree farm. As Ben Foster told our Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney,“this is a man trying to live in the trees and now the dark sense of humour of the universe has him cutting them down.” The farm’s owner, though benevolent, doesn’t trust Will to work closer to living, breathing nature — horses — and assigns him more menial tasks instead. Every instance of help comes with a requirement that Will to conform to social services’ idea of “normal”, policed through constant check-ups on his job performance and the state of his house. The lack of trust and the soul-crushing compromises he is asked to make ultimately scare him back into the woods.As Ben Foster told us, 'this is a man trying to live in the trees, and now the dark sense of humour of the universe has him cutting them down.'Click To Tweet
Because nobody trusts or cares for Will, he becomes increasingly distrustful. He makes brief connections with a truck driver and a former army field medic, but is uncomfortable getting too close. Instead, Will decides to take American individualism to its extreme: complete self-sufficiency, which results in total isolation for both him and his daughter. Only after nearly dying in the forest does Will end up in a potentially hopeful place for his family, living with Tom in a rural trailer park. While this could be an ideal situation for Tom, a compromise between society and living in nature, Will is too traumatized by his recent forced conformity to trust anyone. If Social Services had extended empathy rather than act paternalistically at the outset, Will might have been settled in a situation like this one in the first place, and his reintegration may have been more successful.
American identity and individualism in Debra Granik’s films
Granik has an eye for small, ironic moments that tie the tensions she portrays into the contradictions of American identity. Her on-screen world is awash in American flags. A tent city where Will sells his prescribed painkillers for his only source of income uses a flag as a wall. Irene’s cocaine dealer has an American flag rather than curtains. Ron and his neighbours excitedly give out American flags when his Mexican stepsons arrive, and tell the children to be thankful to “be in America, lot of opportunity here.”
These are communities seemingly proud of America and the “freedom” it represents, as Ron’s neighbours frequently invoke. But Stray Dog, Down to the Bone, and Leave No Trace all question what benefits this pride creates. Americans are supposed to be strong individuals, yet the government does not allow them to be, and what remains of a gutted social support system isn’t only unhelpful, it is punitive. America here is a country that takes far more than it gives — be it your freedom, or even your life.
These three films create a picture of white American poverty that is both bleak and hopeful. The structures in place — or lack thereof — make it too hard for people like Irene and Will to find help, and too easy to remain isolated. If they do reach out to a social support network, at best the help is indifferent to their individual needs, and often even worsens their situation. Granik portrays the failure of these government systems as the flip side of American individualism: a collective failure of empathy. At the same time, Granik emphasizes that her protagonists are not merely lazy or lacking ambition, as bestseller Hillbilly Elegy posited. Instead, she presents flawed characters who, above all, need to be supported for who they are, rather than surveilled and punished for what they are not.