Is Ben Foster the best actor who’s never been nominated for an Oscar? I mean, probably not: that’s a ridiculously numerous and talented group of folks, including men and women whose nominations haven’t come for a variety of unfair reasons, from race to gender to the size of the films they act in. But if you did make a good-faith effort to sort through all of those worthy names and come up with one, I think that Foster would be on the shortlist — and I also think you might be surprised to see him there.
Foster isn’t anonymous or overlooked, necessarily: he has all the hallmarks of a great character actor and minor celebrity. He’s starred in hit films and TV, from Six Feet Under to 3:10 to Yuma to Hell or High Water; he’s given buzzy performances in well-regarded indies like The Messenger, Rampart, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; he’s even had multiple high-profile relationships, first with Robin Wright, then with his current wife, Laura Prepon. But at the same time, after watching Foster deliver a transcendent, unmatchable performance in Debra Granik’s beautiful and heartbreaking new film Leave No Trace, it’s hard not to think that this is the real Ben Foster; and if it isn’t the first time we’ve seen him like that, it’s probably the best.
Foster’s intensity has always been an outlier. Stories about the depth of his prep abound: he took performance-enhancing drugs to play Lance Armstrong in The Program; he drilled out one of his own teeth for Hell or High Water; he slept on the streets of L.A. for Rampart. Acting is still dominated by the large shadows cast by performers like Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, not to mention the overwhelming figure of Daniel Day-Lewis, and we often accept stories of extreme Method acting — like Heath Ledger’s descent into the Joker, or Jim Carrey becoming Andy Kaufman, or Christian Bale’s disturbing weight fluctuations — as testaments to craft.
But this ignores the fact that movies are whole organisms, requiring all of their disparate parts to function together, and often, these kinds of performances can unbalance and disturb the fabric of a film: if one actor is working in a completely different register than another, it fractures the illusion before it can be cast. Even in Foster’s most successful movies, like Hell or High Water, it can feel as though he’s vibrating on a slightly different wavelength; in David Mackenzie’s Western, this dissonance creates a delightful contrast between Foster’s volatility and Chris Pine’s stoicism, but you never think for even a minute that those guys, supposedly brothers, share a millimeter of DNA.
It’s not exactly that Foster has been too talented for his own good. It’s more that his talent has often expressed itself through explosive, scenery-chewing bigness, and such size requires a movie with the breadth and vision to hold it — like, for example, The Messenger, where Oren Moverman pairs Foster with an actor of similar gravitas and boiling energy, Woody Harrelson, and puts him in just about the most serious scenarios you could imagine, which is telling parents that their children have died at war. But in something like The Program, Foster’s portrayal of Lance Armstrong is so convincing and eerily authentic that the movie’s weaknesses seem greater in contrast; they beg for a deeper and more comprehensive investigation of how Armstrong ended up that way.
Foster has also played quiet, though, and that’s where you can see the foreshadowing of Leave No Trace. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, he’s gentle and generous as a cop who complicates the relationship between Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s star-crossed lovers. Director David Lowery perfectly plays Foster and Affleck off of each other, creating two characters with deep similarities that happen to be on different sides of the law, and Foster does much of his acting with his eyes, sublimating noise and violence in the way that men often must when they live lives filled with actual noise and violence.
It’s this ability that makes his work in Leave No Trace so potent. As Will, a war veteran, Foster is saddled with crippling PTSD, but Granik doesn’t go out of her way to explain how or why he got it, aside from a nightmare featuring helicopters and a quick glimpse of a newspaper article. It’s enough to know that he was at war, and to watch Foster embody the discomfort Will clearly feels with every element of human society.
In Leave No Trace, Foster has shockingly few lines, and long stretches of the film will pass without his saying anything. But because of his remarkable physical expressiveness and the conviction with which he inhabits Will, this becomes a strength: Will wouldn’t speak, and because we believe that Foster is Will, we don’t need him to, either. Instead, Foster communicates with his body language. Throughout the film, the actor rubs his head, as if he’s trying to erase himself out of the world, and he frequently turns away from other characters, avoiding eye contact, mumbling the few words he speaks to anyone outside of his daughter, Tom.
Many scenes allow Foster to advance the story, and the arc of his character, by means of his physicality rather than dialogue or exposition. After he and Tom are wrenched from the woods where he’s been living, he’s forced to take a kind of mental-health test, and watching him painfully deal with the headset — and then stutter and stumble through the questions, which he’s meant to answer with yeses and nos — says more than any answers could. When he and Tom go to church in an effort to fit into the community they’ve been placed in, Foster hunches his shoulders and seems to shrink into himself, broadcasting Will’s desire to be anywhere else. And when they return to the woods later on in the film, the way that Foster seems to relax and expand, taking up space, exhibiting control over his environment, communicates in a deep and meaningful way how much more comfortable Will feels there. All of this builds up to one of the film’s last shots, in which the look on Foster’s face contains the full experience of his character up to that point.
It’s a generous performance in another way: Foster allows room for his co-star and onscreen daughter, Thomasin McKenzie, to carry many of the film’s most emotional moments, and, especially, to have its clearest and central narrative arc. Another actor playing the role of a PTSD-addled veteran could’ve raved and shuddered his way through every scene, overshadowing whoever was there with him; but as you believe his character would, Foster allows McKenzie to be the voice of the pair, the personality and the beating heart.
If, in the past, Foster’s performances have often featured an aggressive reaching-out by his characters into the world around them, Leave No Trace flips that script: it allows the actor to cave in, and that self-containedness turns out to be an even better canvas for his abilities than more theatrical parts. Of course, that hinges on Granik’s deft touch and remarkable knack for communicating without words and explanation, but both serve each other well. Through the medium of Will, Foster and Granik are able to turn the actor’s great powers of empathy, expression, and extremity inward, inverting many of the performances that Foster has given in the past. The result is like staring at the mouth of a geyser and waiting for it to explode.
Foster’s work in Leave No Trace is easily some of the best we’ve seen this year, and, if this were a just world, it would finally earn him that elusive Oscar nomination. Because Leave No Trace is such an understated and artful movie, however, it’s unlikely to draw the attention that it would likely need to achieve that. Regardless, it feels like a major moment for Foster, the point at which his great gifts most successfully synced up with the needs of a film.