Principal Cast : Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Kevin Bacon, Farrah MacKenzie, Charlie Evans.
Synopsis: A family’s getaway to a luxurious rental home takes an ominous turn when a cyberattack knocks out their devices, and two strangers appear at their door.
As much as I find apocalyptic, end-of-the-world character pieces worthwhile sci-fi fodder, there’s something about Sam Esmail’s feature film take on Rumaan Alam’s book of the same name that made me crinkle my nose a little. Esoteric to a fault, Leave The World Behind is almost continuously sinister, bereft of humour, and weirdly performed from it’s top-flight cast, and left me with a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth at the close. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the film, and perhaps I’ll need to ruminate on it further to fully grasp the subtext and themes Mr Robot-creator Esmail injected into his very Zemeckis-esque project, but this is a film I think a lot of people will give up half way through or not even start altogether, which would be a shame because it really does deserve an audience.
New York Housewife Amanda Stanford (Julia Roberts) wakes up one morning and decides to take her family on a spur-of-the-moment holiday to Long Island, along with husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their children, autistic daughter Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and older neurotypical son Archie (Charlie Evans). They arrive at their AirBNB accommodation, an upper class house away from the nearest town, where they spend the start of their weekend, before being interrupted by the house’s owner, businessman George Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter, the cynical Ruth (Myha’la), who have returned from the city after a widespread blackout. As the weekend progresses, and their communications with the outside word are cut off, they all become aware that some kind of terrorist attack is underway against the United States and that they all face imminent danger, forcing emotions to run high and relationships to become strained.
Leave The World Behind contains plenty of apocalyptic overtones, and a number of remarkably shocking sequences to elicit an end-of-the-world dread – communication failures, planes falling from the sky, and weird woodland animal flocking behaviour among them. Whereas a lot of these kinds of movies tend to focus on the shock-and-awe action and destruction, it would appear filmmakers are attempting to transition to more cerebral storytelling of the kind American’s fear most – the collapse from within – and this, coupled with Alex Garland’s equally compelling Civil War, indicate a shift from the semi-serious into something approaching potential actuality. The film’s dialogue-heavy exposition and supposition is the glue to this terrifically impactful piece, and as delivered by a quartet of great actors works well to pierce the superficial illusion of safety Americans have about their position in the world, but the overpowering sense of impending doom does prolong a quasi-agony tension that snaps after too long. Esmail directs his own screenplay and he weaves a lot of the unknown within the mix, although he somehow manages to both succeed and fail at delivering a memorable conclusion – perhaps not for the right reasons but for all the wrong ones.
Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali in particular draw great performances from their characters, being immediately unlikeable or untrustworthy and yet forming the central, competing pivots to the film’s dual plot arcs. Their fractious relationship forms the cornerstone of the film’s simmering tensions – Roberts’ Amanda doesn’t trust George, whereas George understands he’s placed the family in a somewhat compromising position. Ethan Hawke’s professorial role is about as close to “fun” as the film gets, and in one of the more terrifying scenes has an untranslated encounter with a freaked-out Spanish-speaking resident down a back road, but watching him go toe-to-toe with a doomsday prepper Kevin Bacon, who cameos as the world’s worst neighbour, is worth the price of admission. For her part, Myha’la is good in her role as George’s daughter but the film asks little of her compared to the heavier hitters.
The film’s dour tone and sullen emergency-broadcast mechanized style – which as I alluded to earlier is reminiscent of Robert Zemeckis’ camera-goes-everywhere visuals – is both strongly dynamic and weirdly disconcerting; I wasn’t expecting a film filled with such technical flourishes but I’m glad I got it, while at the same time it did tend to become distracting at times, particularly in the latter third. The film’s visual effects are all pretty good, bordering on great, and Esmail understands how to payoff a decent build-up of tension, despite some of the film’s revelations falling apart late. A running gag involving the sitcom Friends concludes as one might expect, while a subplot where a large herd of deer continue to appear around the house for no apparent reason lacks motive other than just to be “weird for the sake of it”. You get the sense that Esmail understands cinematic technique, but I also have sneaking suspicion that being opaque for the sake of it doesn’t work if you do it all the time, and Leave The World Behind does it all the time.
I enjoyed this one, as much as one can enjoy the breakdown of civilisation and impending apocalypse. As a character study there’s enough here to sink one’s teeth into, and the overriding tension builds, builds, and builds until you’re sitting there wondering when the nuclear blast is going to hit. The cast are uniformly excellent, the production design and VFX work is of the highest order, and there’s a lot of things here that tap into our (irrational?) fear of societal collapse on a national or global scale. I know, it’s rare to find a Netflix original I can actually recommend, but with caveats in place for your expectations of explosions and shootouts, Leave The World Behind is a flawed but quite prescient story for our time.