Writer-director Sam Esmail has certainly studied the apocalyptic thriller handbook for his latest effort, Leave the World Behind, adapted from the novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam. It’s filled with paranoia, impending doom, shifting allegiances, and fights for survival, all of which are part and parcel with Esmail’s chosen genre. The action and suspense beats are all well done, but nothing particularly new or inventive, both in terms of style and implementation. But Leave the World Behind makes up for having a well worn story arc by having an A+ cast and some expertly written dialogue. Viewers have seen films like Leave the World Behind before, but rarely done to such an accomplished and reasoned degree.
NYC advertising executive Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) has made a snap decision on behalf of her family. Fed up with people, Amanda has booked them a secluded cabin out on Long Island – where one can still see the city from – for some rest and relaxation. Her easygoing, media studies professor husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), television obsessed daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), and clearly horny teenage son, Archie (Charlie Evans) are all along for Amanda’s spur of the moment springtime getaway. The house is nice, posh, and spacious. It has a pool and vast woodlands surrounding it. But something is wrong. The power and water are working, but the internet is down, cell phones don’t work, and televisions and radios aren’t getting any signal. Although they’re clearly irked by not being able to stay connected to the world, they try to make the best of things.
That changes when the home’s owner, George “G.H.” Scott (Mahershala Ali), and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), show up unannounced late one night. They say the city has been plunged into a chaotic blackout, and they have no place else to go. G.H. asks if they can stay in the basement, but finding all of this unusual, and having never met him in person, Amanda is both apoplectic and suspicious. It isn’t until the next morning that it begins dawning on all of them that a devastating cyberattack has unleashed widespread and deadly havoc on America, effectively leaving them stranded and forcing them to figure out next steps together.
The pervasive sense of paranoia and laundry list of things that go wrong in Leave the World Behind aren’t too surprising those familiar with disaster movie tropes. There are loud, strange noises, unexplainable drones, someone gets sick when there’s no access to hospitals, planes start falling from the skies, animals start behaving strangely, all roads are blocked, electronic devices go haywire, and so on and so on. None of these wrinkles are all that novel or original but Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) is far more interested in the people than the details. Not that he’s ignoring his duties as a director by any stretch, as the film’s action and suspense oriented sequences are delivered with a great amount of style, tension, and fluidity. It might be treading on the Black Mirrors and Bird Boxes of the world, but Leave the World Behind still makes an effort to convincingly look the part of a sci-fi, end of the world blockbuster.
But there’s no denying that the real enjoyment and thoughtfulness to be found in Leave the World Behind comes from watching the performers interacting with one another, via the rich and layered characters they have been gifted with. Esmail has created a film where there are no bad or lacking roles across the board, and all of their quirks, motivations, fears, and soft spots have been given close consideration. Leave the World Behind is proof that any stock concept can be elevated provided that the performers and their material are otherwise rock solid.
Roberts’ ranting and entitled Amanda starts out exhibiting racist tendencies (like thinking G.H. is the housekeeper come back to rob the property and not its owner), but something about this time away from a job that forces her to be cynical and heartless for a living also awakens personality traits that have long been dormant. Hawke’s a pro at playing a “cool dad,” but the worse things get, the more he’s forced to confront the fact that he’s essentially a useless person with few tangible skills and less patience than he though he had. Ali has mounting concerns, not only because he has strangers currently living in his home that he can’t turn out onto the street, but also because his wife was supposed to be returning from an overseas trip the same day. My’hala’s Ruth wants to be taken seriously as an adult, but keeps getting treated like a kid by Amanda and G.H., and Amanda and Clay’s sheltered white perspective on things gets on her last nerves.
The interactions between these characters run the emotional gamut. They can be funny, explosive, deceitful, tender, politically charged, or simply realistic slices of life from a world turned upside down (quite literally in some sequences, thanks to Esmail’s love for rotating camera angles). While it’s consistently a doom laden thriller, Leave the World Behind (which is executive produced in part by Barack and Michelle Obama, in a nice bit of branching out for their production company) starts out as a commentary on race, privilege, and the untrustworthiness of humanity, before taking a more somber, frightening, and darkly comedic turn that suggests nothing can pull society away from the cliff it has already started tumbling over. It’s bleak, but never humourless (especially at its somewhat ambiguous ending, which some will loathe and others will find hilarious), and the cast members have all found the appropriate balance for their characters. As Ruth points out a few times to others around her, viewers might not like everything that these characters say and do, but there’s always a shred of truth or agreeability if one cares to admit it or parse out the situation at hand.
Roberts gets one of her best roles in some time as a woman who has seemingly forgot how to relax or take people at their word. Hawke plays precisely the type of levelheaded person someone would want to be stuck with in a situation like this, until one slowly realizes he doesn’t have much to offer. Ali is a commanding presence more than capable of playing along with Esmail’s desire to make G.H. look like he’s harbouring major secrets about what’s happening, but also doing an exceptional job of subverting the white gaze that makes the Sandfords (and admittedly and inevitably some members of the audience) suspicious. Special mention has to go out to Mackenzie, whose performance as young and demanding Ruth eventually moves the viewer to a curious amount of tenderness towards the end. And the MVP here has to be Myha’la, who commands the screen opposite all of her more established co-stars. Myha’la’s Ruth has a lot of fire and sensitivity that grounds Esmail’s material in a humane, equitable, and engaging space. It’s always uncomfortable, but Ruth is the only character capable of openly calling out the obvious, and Myha’la’s performance gives Leave the World Behind its most compelling character to watch.
While this particular riff on the collapse of civilization and more than a few theories about what will lead to its downfall have been explored many similar times in the past, that doesn’t make Leave the World Behind an ineffective film. In fact, it’s one of the best variations on this theme in quite some time, and that’s a credit to the considerations paid by Esmail as to where the world is going and where it has already been. Some suspension of disbelief might be necessary at points when dealing with the plot, but on a person-to-person level, Leave the World Behind rings true enough. No one likes to contemplate the end of all things, but with writing and performances this good, it becomes easy to look at even the bleakest of possible outcomes for the human race.
Leave the World Behind opens in select theatres on Friday, November 24, 2023. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting December 8.
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