4 out of 5 stars

Cinephiles disillusioned by Netflix’s recent focus on quantity over quality will find at least some renewed faith in the streamer with the release of Leave the World Behind, a thought-provoking, gripping post-apocalyptic drama with an exceptional cast.

This impressive second feature by writer-director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot), closely based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, opens with advertising executive Amanda (Julia Roberts) awakening her professor husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), in their New York apartment. She’s suddenly had enough with the city and all its inhabitants, prompting her to arrange a short vacation for them and their two teenage children near the coast, not far from the Big Apple in miles but light years away in terms of stress levels. And their break commences that day; a harbinger that Amanda might be much closer to the brink than she’s willing to admit.

They embark on their journey with son Archie (Charlie Evans) and slightly younger daughter Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). The house proves to be stunning, but their first few hours are marred by disturbing events when a tanker bizarrely runs aground at the local beach (a sensationally shot scene, as the masses of sand churned up by the giant vessel are intensely physical).

Smaller oddities quickly pile up too—internet issues, TV problems—and then, in the dead of night, a pair of strangers showed up at the door: G.H (Mahershala Ali) and his twenty-something daughter Ruth (Myha’la), explaining that they were the homeowners and needed to spend the night. They’d been heading into New York, they claimed, just as an electrical blackout struck.

Henceforth, Leave the World Behind almost exclusively focuses on these six characters, introducing only one additional significant figure, a survivalist played by Kevin Bacon (Tremors), near the end. It otherwise confines itself resolutely to what they know about their situation, which isn’t much.

Nearly everyone else appears to have vanished, leaving no way of telling whether they fled, died, or merely hid in their basements; communication lines are severed; the atmosphere around the house is eerily tranquil, but G.H need not venture far to uncover evidence of planes plummeting from the sky. Animals are behaving oddly, and at a couple of points, an inexplicable, excruciating high-pitched sound reduces people to agony—could it be some kind of weapon? Something of an M. Night Shyamalan (Knock at the Cabin) atmosphere, in a good way, pervades much of the movie.

Tiny fragments of incomplete information do manage to filter through: there are suggestions this could be the beginning of a war, hints it could be the result of cyber-terrorism, and murmurs it might be linked to the Middle East—or perhaps not. However, the four adults and two children remain isolated; they simply don’t know, and despite their constant anxiety for information and the final act of conspiracy-theorizing from Bacon’s character, this is the opposite of a conspiracy-theory movie.

According to G.H, who maintains close ties to the military despite his profession as an investment advisor, even those in power often lack control over events, and the best they can hope for is a timely warning. This statement not only alludes to the pandemic but also underscores a central theme of the film, exemplified by several character’ arcs, especially Amanda’s: our survival as societies depends as much on getting on with each other as it does on technology.

The message of this movie, which is executive-produced by former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, is no surprise, as it echoes themes they’ve explored previously in their work with Higher Ground Productions, such as in Worth (2020) and Rustin (2023). It’s doubtless significant that, for one character, happiness is found not in rebuilding civilisation but in the discovery of a DVD of Friends, while one of the most horrifying moments in the movie stems not from any overt disaster but from an insuperable language barrier.

Confident direction from Esmail brings it all home effectively. He masterfully orchestrates a few awe-inspiring set pieces, including the oil tanker scene and another involving self-driving cars. However, for the most part, he focuses on the tight-knit cast, generally sticking to the action in the house while introducing just enough variety in locations to convey the sense of a broader, now-mysterious world beyond. Cinematographer Tod Campbell complements the storytelling with stylish compositions and colour combinations, as well as the occasional deliberately disorienting shot.

The strength of the film, though, lies in its ensemble cast, with all seven principal actors delivering outstanding performances. While the supporting roles are relatively minor, the main actors bring their characters to life with depth and nuance, not only enhancing their personalities but also creating believable and engaging relationships between them.

While the actors playing the two teenagers have the least significant roles in terms of character development, they’re nevertheless integral to the story, and their interactions with their parents and each other appear convincing. On the other hand, Roberts’s Amanda undergoes a remarkable transformation, particularly in her interactions with G.H and Ruth, where she transitions from an initially suspicious abrasiveness (mistakenly perceived as racism by Ruth, who fails to grasp that Amanda harbours an equal dislike for everyone) to a sense of companionship.

The transformation isn’t entirely smooth, as we can still detect traces of the prickly “old” Amanda beneath the surface. Similarly, Myha’la’s Ruth slowly warming to the other woman reflects a similar pattern of change. (The character of Ruth represents a major departure from Alam’s novel, where she’s G.H.’s wife rather than his daughter.)

Hawke’s Clay also reveals different sides as the film progresses, initially displaying a weaker persona before transitioning to a stronger one. And while Ali’s G.H may appear more emotionally consistent, he allows us to catch glimpses of underlying turmoil. Even Bacon, given considerably less screen time and limited scope to fully unveil his survivalist neighbour, takes the character well beyond cliché.

The pacing is perfectly judged. Esmail’s film never drags on nor feels rushed. Misjudgments are few and far between, although the idea of a divided America that needs to reconcile may be a bit overplayed today. The use of animals introduces a touch of magical realism that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film (they’re not vital to it, either, but they do provide some striking visuals).

While the movie may not provide concrete answers about the factual situation by the end (which might disappoint some literal-minded viewers), the characters certainly acquire valuable insights into what it takes to survive, both in an apocalypse and in the world we currently live in.

USA | 2023 | 138 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider netflix

Cast & Crew

director: Sam Esmail.
writer: Sam Esmail (based on the novel by Rumaan Alam).
starring: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke & Myha’la.