Leave the World Behind movie review: Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali stay alert in tense apocalyptic thriller
Leave the World Behind movie review: Julia Roberts' film is based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam. It is directed by Sam Esmail.
Leave the World Behind movie review: "I f***ing hate people," Julia Roberts' Amanda Sanford proclaims at the very beginning of Leave the World Behind, the new Netflix release this week, directed by Sam Esmail, the writer and director of Mr Robot. Amanda has planned an impromptu getaway for her family, which includes her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their two children- Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). Yet, the world around her slowly begins to disintegrate – and the ambiguities pile up one after the other, leaving her (along with the viewers) in a constant sense of dread. (Also read: Leave the World Behind: Julia Roberts feels ‘honoured’ to star in Netflix's latest thriller film)
There's a M Night Shayamalan-esque vibe in the DNA of Leave the World Behind, which starts off with immense promise. The Stanfords reach their destination, and shortly head to the beach. Rose spots an oil tanker first, and eventually realises that it is headed straight towards the shore. Horrified, they run for their lives, as the huge ship crashes on the shore. By evening, there's a knock at the door. What happens next, when the owners of the same vacation rental choose to return early and wish to stay along with the family?
The owner here in question is GH Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la). Scott informs that there is a blackout in the city and so they chose to drive back to their house instead. Amanda immediately doubts them, and is aghast that Clay doesn't. Yet, the next morning, when Amanda does momentarily notice a news alert about a potential blackout and some hacking at work that may indicate a national emergency, she's sure something is afoot. The resultant scenes, brilliantly captured by cinematographer Tod Campbell, work wonders in amplifying the urgency of the topsy-turvy situation.
Unnerving tension and ambiguity
The racial tension between the two families is the subtext that informs the larger, more unnerving displacement at work. The issue, which develops in the second half, is how Esmail is unable to probe the questions that arise out of the turmoil, placing a bigger emphasis in the abnormality of the situations that take place in quick succession. Leave the World Behind stops short of making those building blocks first – there's a lot left to uncover in the history of the Stanfords (which later feels one-note in small revelations), so as to intersect the growing sense of discomfort with them along the way.
Julia Roberts is perhaps the furthest she has been as an actor to play someone so despicable and annoying on screen. She nails the self-centered arrogance of Amanda, and is a delight to watch as the emergency leaves her concerned. Ethan Hawke matches her energy with a dry sense of agency in Clay. But it is Mahershala Ali, who emerges as the scene-stealer, whose uneasy body language suggests more than what the script offers to his character. The scene with Ali and Roberts is the one that really sticks.
Leave the World Behind is ambitious in design and moves ahead with a prevailing sense of dread. I was especially aghast about the way it chose to end so impishly, erasing the severity and resistance altogether. Still, there are important questions thrown here, which could have landed better if the treatment was less defensive in approach.