Leave the World Behind (2023, dir. Sam Esmail)

by | Dec 8, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 141 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 8 December 2023

WHO’S IN LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND?

Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Farrah Mackenzie, Charlie Evans, Kevin Bacon

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Sam Esmail (director, writer, producer), Marisa Yeres Gill, Lisa Gillan, Chad Hamilton and Julia Roberts (producers), Mac Quayle (composer), Tod Campbell (cinematographer), Lisa Lassek (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Two families face a world-changing event together…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND?

In these times of war, corruption, inequality, and general division, it is easy to think that the entire world is about to end. What better time, then, for director and writer Sam Esmail – whom you may recognise as the creator of Mr. Robot – to show exactly how the world would end in 2023 (or whichever not-so-distant year it’s meant to be) with Leave the World Behind, a captivating and impressively executed adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s novel of the same name.

In it, we follow a Brooklyn-based family, including parents Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Hawke), who along with their teenage children Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) head to a luxurious house in the Hamptons for a spontaneous holiday. At first, it is a typical family trip with the kids using the swimming pool, complaining that the Wi-Fi is down – more on that in a bit – and so on, but during a trip to the beach they are left shaken when a giant oil tanker comes crashing into the sandbanks.

And yet, Amanda is left much more on edge when, suddenly, the house’s owner G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) shows up with his 20-something daughter Ruth (Myha’la) in the middle of the night. They bring with them news that all communication, including that spotty Wi-Fi, has been halted, and that the country appears to be in the midst of a cyberattack – but Amanda, whose view of the world is deeply cynical and hateful, immediately distrusts them, for reasons that are never explicitly explained, but it doesn’t take a genius to see the subconscious bigotry of this entitled White lady towards these ultimately harmless Black strangers. Nevertheless, both families must form an uneasy alliance as they attempt to piece together exactly what is going on, and why several other strange occurrences keep happening like loud, deafening noises coming in waves, and local animals such as an eerie pack of deer being alarmingly creepy towards the humans.

In many ways is Leave the World Behind a far more effective and engaging Netflix apocalyptic movie than Don’t Look Up, one of which is the fact that Esmail (in his second feature after the low-key 2014 rom-com Comet) actually manages to drive home his social commentary in not necessarily subtler fashion, but with a far stronger focus on the characters and slow-burn plotting. The film is just under two-and-a-half hours long, but Esmail spends much of that time to build a sturdy yet uncertain dynamic between its principal cast, who share scenes together where they get into some hard-hitting topics and even touch upon some of the emotional consequences that have arisen because of the events happening around them. The performances they give are extremely strong, particularly Roberts who passionately taps into her inner Karen for this deeply flawed role, and Ali who delivers some exceptional and even haunting monologues with just the right amount of emotion. Look out, also, for a late supporting turn by Kevin Bacon during a particularly tense section of the film, as a survivalist that’s one MAGA hat away from being a total whack job.

The filmmaker also uses his runtime to explore a few timely topics that ring all too true in our modern society, specifically the pre-conceived prejudices that prevent us from forming basic communication with one another. In addition to Amanda’s deeply distrustful (and subtextually racist) views of G.H. and Ruth, the seemingly easy-going Clay is confronted with slightly xenophobic fear upon coming across a woman desperate for help but only speaks Spanish. Rather than simply poking fun at the issues being satirised here (albeit under a far bleaker context), Esmail wisely attempts to unpack them among these particular characters and get to the root of what may have led them to their current mindset. Through this, they feel better defined and not just simple archetypes that would have been far easier to trot out.

There is a resounding confidence in Esmail’s filmmaking that makes these people and their increasingly horrifying situation feel so much more invigorating to watch. The director, along with cinematographer Tod Campbell, incorporates a lot of energetic camera movements that float through this house and around characters as they’re simply talking to one another, which at times comes close to feeling overdone but is so smooth in its execution that it remains visually compelling. He also factors in some genuinely creepy shots to emphasise the bleak, almost horror-like atmosphere, particularly with the large number of deer that appear to be almost like Michael Myers staring in through the window from outside, and one sequence involving a whole bunch of self-driving Tesla cars.

As bleak as the film gets – and it does get pretty unnerving, particularly towards the end – it is also surprisingly funny. Esmail has some fun in his script with the micro-aggressions that Roberts unfairly delivers to her unwanted house guests (who, again, actually own the house that she’s temporarily staying in), and throughout factors in a number of strange lines and quirky character traits that almost make you feel as though you’re watching a better-acted M. Night Shyamalan film. One character has an arc that sees them obsessing over watching the final episode of Friends after streaming is no longer an option, but the film knows to play this largely for laughs, as well as offering a surprisingly comforting look into this person’s (admittedly narrow) mindset, leading to perhaps the best, and most darkly funny, use of the sitcom’s catchy theme song since that final episode.

It is quite impressive how much Leave the World Behind captures your attention for its lengthy runtime, especially with the limited number of characters and dramatic turns in its script. Not only does it hold itself steady with some excellent performances and stylish filmmaking, but it is genuinely thrilling in how it presents this nightmarish version of the apocalypse though a modern lens without coming across as entirely self-important. If, indeed, the end times are fast approaching, then this is a bleak but worthwhile way to go out.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Leave the World Behind is a thrilling and deeply engaging apocalyptic thriller that gets under the skin with its stylish filmmaking, some excellent performances, and a script that tackles some timely issues with an entertaining splash of dark comedy.

Four of of five stars

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