Film Review: Leave the World Behind
Leave the World Behind
Director: Sam Esmail
Higher Ground Productions
Streaming on Netflix: 12.08
The bad news is that the apocalypse is coming. The good news is that it’s coming to Netflix, so at least you can enjoy it from the comfort of your own home. I’m referring, of course, to the film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind.
Amanda (Academy Award–winner Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich) and Clay (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise, Training Day) decide to escape the grind of New York City, pack up their kids, Archie (Charlie Evans, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie, Utopia) and lease a posh, Long Island home for their vacation. Their peaceful getaway takes an unexpected turn when two strangers, G.H. (Academy Award–winner Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la, Dumb Money) show up on their doorstep in the middle of the night, claiming to be the owners of the home and are seeking a place to stay as a blackout has engulfed the city. It soon becomes clear that a major emergency has taken place, and there are mentions of a cyberattack during the rare moments when television or internet service flickers to life. Both families must now face the reality of an impending catastrophe that becomes increasingly worse with each passing moment.
Leave the World Behind is a throwback, recalling the star-driven adaptations of bestselling novels that were huge in the ‘90s with just a touch of a Roland Emmerich “end of the world disaster”–movie mixed with the sense of mystery found in the early, less abysmal works of M. Night Shyamalan. Writer/director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) doesn’t entirely reject the B-movie aspect of those influences, though he does take it in a smarter and more reality-driven direction. The suspense builds slowly and purposefully, and there are a couple of genuinely exciting action set pieces—one involving a mysterious oil tanker ship and another that features very intense self-driving Teslas—that feels like it’s made for the big screen but will still play well enough on a smaller one. Fortunately, the character-based sequences are strong enough that we aren’t just waiting for the next action moment to come along, and the film wins a lot of points for feeling believable. Even the explanation we’re leading up to feels plausible enough, more so than usual with this type of film.
Roberts is a movie star of the highest caliber, and even if the rest of the film had been weaker, I still would have been hooked by her entertaining performance. Her character Amanda isn’t always easy to like, which makes her far more interesting. Ali is terrific as the mysterious and charming G.H., and Hawke steals quite a bit of the film as the affable anti–alpha male, Clay. Evans is given the blandest character of the three kids, though he does well enough in the role. Myha’la does her share of scene stealing, nailing the acerbic wit of the character. Mackenzie outdoes them all as the sad and sympathetic Rose, whose determination to finish binge-watching Friends and see the final episode packs a surprising amount of pathos even without the added emotional weight of the recent, tragic passing of Matthew Perry (die-hard fans of the series may be distracted by memories of Roberts’ guest appearance as a potential love interest for Perry’s character, Chandler). While Kevin Bacon’s (Apollo 13, The River Wild) role as Danny, a mysterious, paranoid survivalist, only amounts to an extended cameo, he adds a smoldering intensity to every frame he’s in.
Leave the World Behind is an engaging and unnerving thriller that moves briskly and is expertly acted, demonstrating that Esmail has enough skill with the visual craft of filmmaking and garnering strong performances to have a potential future as a blockbuster filmmaker. The film is a fun way to escape the reality of the world going to hell in a handbasket by offering some nice, comforting fiction about it doing so. –Patrick Gibbs