Blessed with a cast of Hollywood A-listers, writer-director-producer Sam Esmail has adapted Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel Leave the World Behind for Netflix and the result is a gripping and often unsettling film.
Workaholic Amanda Sanford (Julia Roberts) decides on the spur-of-the-moment to take her family for a vacation at a Long Island rental home. After Amanda, her university-professor husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their two children Rose (Farrah MacKenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) arrive at a deluxe house, they are dismayed to find no cell phone reception, Wi-Fi signal or cable television service. That evening after the disappointed children go to bed, Amanda and Clay get an unexpected visit from the home’s owner G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) who have hurriedly left New York in the wake of a citywide blackout.
More strange events ensue as a tanker runs aground at the local beach where the Sanfords had been relaxing. The next day, Clay cannot find his way to town—his car’s GPS is nonfunctional—and a drone begins dropping red leaflets written in Arabic. G.H. goes to the same beach where an airplane has just crashed only to witness another plane going down near the same spot. Meanwhile Rose and Archie have hiked to a vacant shed in the woods where Archie gets bitten by a strange bug. Later, the Sanfords and the Scotts are treated to a piercing noise (which will later return). As Amanda and Clay try driving to town, they are forced to turn back because the roads are entirely blocked by self-driving cars that have crashed into each other.
The following morning, G.H. and Clay take Archie (whose teeth are falling out) to visit Danny (Kevin Bacon), a well-armed survivalist, to get the boy medicine for his presumed infection. After some tense moments, Danny agrees to help Archie and suggests to G.H. and Clay that more attacks will be coming their way. Danny also believes that the disruption of all avenues of mass communication are part of an overarching strategy to keep Americans in the dark about the ongoing conflict and warns Clay and G.H. to fend for themselves and seek shelter when they return to the Scotts’ house. When Rose disappears, a frantic Amanda and Ruth began a search. From across the water appear the first glimpses of what is really happening in New York City.
Better known for his successful but quirky series Mr. Robot, this is only Esmail’s second feature-length film and, for the most part, Leave the World Behind succeeds in telling a very unconventional apocalyptic tale during which viewers will see little of the ongoing death and destruction. An undercurrent of racism pops up when Amanda voices her initial mistrust of the Black owner of a luxurious vacation home who may know much more about what is happening than he lets on. Much later, the two will share a private, marijuana-infused moment when it becomes increasingly likely Scott will never see his wife again. This was also the first film in which Ethan Hawke and Kevin Bacon have appeared together, playing polar opposites—Clay as an ineffectual bumbler and Danny as the consummate take-charge lock-and-loader. My favorite performance comes from 18-year-old Farrah MacKenzie who completely sold me on her portrayal of a young girl infatuated with the Friends television show. What pervades Leave the World Behind is the sense of unease created by writer-director Esmail’s leaving most of what is happening in the largely unseen outside world up to viewers’ imaginations. This ploy definitely works to keep audiences glued to the small screen, looking for any clues as to how bad things are becoming in America. We can only guess what will happen eventually to the main characters when the curtain drops with much still literally left up in the air. An effective thriller and one I highly recommend.
- Rating Certificate: R (for language, some sexual content, drug use and brief bloody images)
- Studios & Distributors: Esmail Corp | Red Om Films | Higher Ground Productions | Netflix
- Country: USA
- Language: English
- Run Time: 141 Mins.
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Director: Sam Esmail
- Written By: Sam Esmail
- Release Date: 8 December 2023 (Netflix)