A-list movie stars face the apocalypse in Leave the World Behind
Films depicting apocalyptic times can come in many forms, from blockbuster movies to studio comedies to small independent dramas. The new Netflix film Leave the World Behind takes the route of a mystery, but one stocked with A-list names including Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke.
The film is kicked off by Amanda Sandford (Roberts) who rents a house on Long Island for her husband, Clay (Hawke) and family on the spur of the moment, after becoming enticed by an ad that says you can "leave the world behind." But their retreat is interrupted early when George Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la Herrold) knock on their door late at night, saying they own the house and that they're fleeing a blackout in New York City.
What follows is a tightly-wound suspense story on two fronts: First, between the two families, as Amanda is skeptical of their story and displays some barely-concealed racism; and second, in the world at large, as something appears to be happening. But with the film’s characters cut off from all communication outside of the house, they – and the audience – have no way of knowing what exactly it is.
Written and directed by Sam Esmail, adapted from the book by Rumann Alam, the film feels like a chamber drama writ large. The majority of the film takes place in and around the house on Long Island, featuring conversations between Amanda, Clay, George, and Ruth in various combinations. Amanda and Clay’s children, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), take in the whole scene while mostly being ignored, leaving them to discover odd happenings in their own way.
But Esmail also makes time for some big set pieces, including an oil tanker crashing headlong into a beach full of people, a plane falling from the sky, and self-driving Teslas causing chaos on a highway. The juxtaposition between the two extremes, combined with a story that withholds a lot of crucial information, may have some viewers feeling emotional whiplash, but Esmail melds them together in a way that the story rarely feels disjointed.
The film also does a great job of showing just how insular people can be. The big moments that would shake most people to their core are, if not dismissed, then diminished by the characters in favor of the personal things going on in their families. On one hand, it’s understandable as everyone wants to take care of the people they love. On the other, typified by Rose’s constant complaints about the lack of internet preventing her from seeing the series finale of Friends, sometimes escaping feels better than acknowledging the world’s problems.
Esmail, who’s best known as the creator of the TV show Mr. Robot, shows a flair for the dramatic in his filmmaking style. Moments of upheaval result in the camera tilting on its axis, making the audience feel as off-balance as the characters. There are also some fantastic technical shots, including the camera traveling through a car in impossible positions, as well as a car turning around with the camera seeming to float in air in front of the hood.
Roberts, Hawke, and Ali make for a powerhouse lead trio, with Herrold more than holding her own against them. Roberts has not been in many movies in recent years (this and 2022’s Ticket to Paradise are her only films since 2018), but she proves here she hasn’t lost a step. Hawke’s milquetoast character gives him something different to play than recent roles, while Ali gives a performance that’s weighted with racial appeasement, potential grief, and intelligence. Kevin Bacon shows up for a brief but effective appearance.
The message of Leave the World Behind is embodied in two portentous lines: Amanda saying early on, “I f***ing hate people,” and George noting late in the film, “Nothing frightens me more than a person unwilling to learn, even at their own expense.” It’s far from an uplifting film, but the acting, the story, and the filmmaking make it highly watchable nonetheless.
Leave the World Behind is now streaming on Netflix.