Credit: Netflix
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Streaming Scene

Leave the World Behind — Sam Esmail

December 11, 2023

As in this past winter’s Knock at the Cabin, a would-be idyllic vacation serves as microcosm for fissures in the great American experiment, in addition to, potentially, the end of the world in Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind. But whereas the Shyamalan film made overtures to the inscrutability of God’s will — with the film’s uninvited houseguests standing in for nothing less than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Leave the World Behind, based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, searches about for tangible if still fantastical explanations, tapping into our societal anxieties while somewhat misguidedly attempting to speak to “the moment.” Leave the World Behind was made by and for the sort of blinkered liberals who made a big show of participating in “social media blackouts” in support of Black causes, but still hold their belongings tightly when they see a person of color walking toward them; to its slight credit, the film recognizes as much. Yet its tone is overwhelmingly strident, its cultural signifiers blindingly obvious, and its pervasive sense of learned helplessness feels less like autocritique and more like self-flagellation.

Introduced in a rather tone-deaf pre-credit sequence, we meet upper-middle-class New Yorkers Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke), who, we learn through the sort of baldly expository statements that serve as dialogue, have booked an impromptu trip to the shore with their two teenage children, Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). With all four members of the family consumed to varying degrees with their own mobile devices — in a fun acknowledgment of a streaming rival, though the film was financed and released by Netflix, Rose is obsessed with watching the show “Friends” on the Max app — the Sandfords converge on the Long Island mansion they’ve rented for a long weekend. Initially, as the Wi-Fi signal begins to drop out, Amanda views it as a blessing, forcing her kids to abandon screen time to go outside and be present in a family dynamic. But it becomes ever apparent that there’s more afoot than poor reception or a faulty router. A family trip to the beach is interrupted by an oil tanker dramatically running aground, which is the sort of thing that would be all over the news, except the cable and cell phone service is down as well. Still, minor inconveniences all until they receive unannounced visitors at the door late at night: the house’s owners, G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his post-grad daughter Ruth (Myha’la), who share concerning news from the city.

With all of New York mired in an unexplainable blackout, G.H. and Ruth have returned to their weekend home seeking sanctuary, testing the generosity of strangers as well as the Airbnb terms of service. A rift emerges along gender lines: the men bend over backward to arrive at a mutually beneficial accommodation for the evening, while Amanda and Ruth remain dubious of the entire notion of coexisting under one roof — both women have credible claims as to which family is the true interloper — with the former’s skepticism that G.H. could even own a house this nice coming through as unvoiced racial prejudice. Even with trust tentatively established, it’s clear G.H. knows more about what’s going on than he’s letting on, and the signs that something life-altering is happening continue to pile up. Dozens of wild deer congregating in the backyard start inching closer to the house; a drone drops thousands of pamphlets reading “death to America” in a foreign language; a deafening and disorienting high-pitched noise rings out for miles. Then, the commercial airplanes start crashing into the shoreline.     

Leave the World Behind is a disaster movie writ small. Each upsetting new development is presented from a limited perspective and plays against the tension of two families forced to ride it out together, clinging to social pacts and norms as arbitrary as who gets to sleep in the master bedroom; G.H. may have a handgun, but it’s nothing compared to a binding rental agreement. The film is at its best when it allows its actors to work through exactly what tatters of civilization, and with it civility, remain in a strange new world where answers about what’s even going on remain maddeningly speculative. Clinging to dimming hope in the face of overwhelming evidence that everything won’t simply return to normal, Amanda compartmentalizes how much she “fucking hates people,” briefly humoring G.H.’s charms and sphinxlike anecdotes that may hint at what’s really transpiring. It culminates in a scene between Roberts and Ali that feels like a gift from Esmail to the actors: allowing his stars to dance with drunken abandon — in a long, unbroken take — to the mid-’90s R&B song “Too Close” by Next, set against a towering wall of records (the film is unambiguously pro-physical media), it’s the closest the film comes to living up to its title. But it’s a moment that exists outside of time and the temperament of the characters. Disarming as it might be, it feels as though it’s been smuggled into the film strictly for its value as a meme.

No, the pervasive sensation evoked by the film is that of impotence in the face of an actual crisis. The decades spent anesthetizing ourselves through media on demand and white-collar employment spent behind computer screens have left many of us vulnerable to a system that can be turned off, like pulling a cord from a wall outlet, and weaponized against the population. Actual survival skills and the foresight to plan for an end-of-days scenario are strictly the domain of armed crackpots and doomsday preppers (personified by a character played by Kevin Bacon, of all people) with everyone else at their mercy. It’s a sobering, if a little obvious, assessment tied up in class strife — almost an inverse of what occurred during the pandemic when workers in cushy office jobs that could be done over Zoom were spared the brunt of economic hardship — but the film’s disposition is notably sour and its self-amusement in calling out the myopia and hypocrisy of the characters is unbecoming. At one point, Hawke’s character has a near mental breakdown after getting turned around on country roads while running errands without the benefit of GPS; we also witness his interaction with a visibly desperate woman who only speaks Spanish that plays out like someone trying to flick something odious off their fingers at considerable length. Further, as if to hammer home how much these people are a symptom of self-sorting, nearly every character in the film speaks almost exclusively in grating talking points meant to emphasize their most exasperating qualities (e.g. when asked what she does for a living, Ruth fires off a practiced-sounding speech about not wanting to get a job until she’s taken some time to “figure my shit out” lest she be sucked into a career she grows to hate in 10 years).         

Esmail’s background is primarily in television (he created “Mr. Robot”) and, at the risk of attacking easy targets, it shows. The film is split into five approximately 25-minute “episodes” (denoted by ominous chapter titles), each ending with what amounts to a cliffhanger. Beyond the potshots made at the expense of the characters, there’s an overarching glibness to the film which sails past merely cutting the tension with comedic relief and into smirking impertinence. In particular, the film ends with the single most obvious pop culture callout imaginable, so conspicuous it’s practically visible from space, and the film treats it like Columbus discovering the new world. As if to compensate for any shortcomings, Esmail employs a series of gyroscopic, almost weightless camera movements, twisting the camera around, over, and past his actors to no real end other than equating perceived degree of difficulty with being a serious filmmaker. It’s all something of a mess, which is unfortunate as the subject of stratification and society turning on itself remains especially prescient. One can read good faith into the film’s consternation over the ways we are susceptible to generalizations and othering those we disagree with, while also observing Leave the World Behind is inadvertently guilty of the very same thing. 

DIRECTOR: Sam Esmail;  CAST: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Kevin Bacon;  DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix;  STREAMING: December 8;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 20 min.