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Leave the World Behind Review: Stellar Performances Saved Unevenly Structured Psychodrama

While Leave the World Behind's ambition is laudable, it unfortunately amounts to little of interest by the time its credits roll.
Leave the World Behind

Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind takes massive storytelling swings from the opening moments, where a confident Julia Roberts expresses how much she hates people and wants to leave the world behind and take his family on a vacation away from the chaos of New York City. After a stellar opening credits sequence foreshadowing the sense of dread the main characters will encounter, with a bombastic Joey Bada$$ needle-drop, Leave the World Behind quickly gets moving as Amanda (Roberts) and husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) discover the lavish house they rented for the weekend in Long Island.

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However, things quickly turn for the worse as an oil tanker crash-lands on the beach near the home, and the man who rented the house to Amanda, G.H. (or George) Scott (Mahershala Ali), and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la), mysteriously show up to announce that a total blackout has shrouded New York City in total darkness. George and Ruth ask to stay and sort things out for a day or two, which Amanda refuses as she suspects something afoul, while Clay welcomes them with open arms.

Leave the World Behind - still
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Myha’la as Ruth, Mahershala Ali as G.H., Ethan Hawke as Clay, and Julia Roberts as Amanda. CR: JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX

After such a strong opening sequence that draws the audience into the mystery that shrouds Leave the World Behind, one wonders how Esmail will sustain the film’s momentum for 141 minutes and pay off the numerous breadcrumbs he leaves in its first act. Turns out he doesn’t and scatters the plot around many cyclical situations that amount to very little by the time the film’s last (and most important) message shows up on the screen.

Leave the World Behind Offers Unfocused Thrills and Messages

It is a bit hypocritical to watch a Netflix movie with a “save physical media” warning occurring near the film’s end. The studio bringing this movie to life killed video stores. It was determined to kill theatres during the COVID-19 pandemic by leveraging the crisis to revamp its streaming offerings. Esmail seems to be a defender of physical media and, through one visually striking sequence, shows exactly the importance of owning and preserving films (and TV series) in their physical form.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Farrah Mackenzie as Rose, Julia Roberts as Amanda, Charlie Evans as Archie, and Ethan Hawke as Clay. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX

Perhaps Netflix could’ve been absolved of their hypocrisy had they kept Netflix DVD alive, but they shut it down in April 2023. But as Christopher Nolan said, when you own a film, “You can put it on a shelf so no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.” Food for thought.

But that’s one of the messages treated in Esmail’s film that gets the most attention and importance. The other themes are interestingly explored through the figure of Amanda and George, but not as fleshed out as they should be. Roberts gives an impassioned monologue near the film’s end on society’s penchant for egotism and how people never behave rationally in times of crisis (perhaps a commentary on our self-centeredness that tarnished gubernatorial responses on COVID-19), and it feels like the only time Esmail has something of interest to say.

Leave the World Behind - Still 3
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Mahershala Ali as G.H. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX

The rest of the film ebbs and flows in tone and genre, never knowing what it wants to be or say. Does it want to be a post-apocalyptic thriller, à la Knock at the Cabin? Or does it want to be a minimalist isolation drama with strong parallels to COVID-19, with splashes of home invasion thriller for good measure? Or how about a conspiracy thriller where the government’s biggest — and most nefarious — plan gets activated as a means to naturally eradicate the human race? A “coup d’état,” as George calls it. Now, where was that word repeated ad nauseam before? Yeah…

Still, the film does have its fair share of thrilling sequences. Most notably a bravura car chase that sees Amanda and Clay escape a swarm of self-driving Teslas that crash into one another, blocking all access to New York. Of course, the Tesla choice is intentional, and as much as people like to pile on Elon Musk for having killed Twitter’s viability as a platform (I’m never calling it X), never underestimate how powerful this guy is. Musk keeps taunting these cars as the future of driving, but look at how useless they are when activated. One of the world’s most powerful — and dangerous — public figures.

Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Mahershala Ali Save Leave the World Behind

Thankfully, Leave the World Behind boasts a strong cast of seasoned veterans, giving the movie an emotional anchor to attach ourselves to. Roberts hasn’t been this good in years, even with a dancing scene that feels highly reminiscent of that cringe hip-sway from Florian Zeller’s The Son. She sells each ounce of Amanda’s layered personality as the movie reaches its natural end.

Hawke is more typecasted than Roberts and Ali but still does good work and shares a few scenes where he flexes his paranoia muscles. It more than makes up for his caricatural one-note performance we recently saw in Pedro Almodovar’s Strange Way of Life.

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But it’s Ali who becomes the emotional center of Leave the World Behind, giving incredible complexity to his portrayal of George. But Esmail’s writing makes the character too unfocused for Ali to overcome the shortcomings. Still, he embodies George with as much grace and warmth as he can and ultimately makes us feel for him through his relationship with Ruth and how he eventually warms up to Amanda when she realizes that he is, above all else, a father who wants his family to be safe. In the film’s tensest sequence, Kevin Bacon also appears as a survivalist, where incomprehensibility plagues the protagonists from making rational decisions.

And that’s essentially Esmail’s message: a crisis will make us do crazy things, even if we don’t want to. Could have he told me that in something shorter than 141 elongated minutes? Probably. Could have he done without the many scenes that scatter the plot and hinder any emotional investment in the film? Absolutely.

Fortunately for him, it contains enough compelling sequences to warrant our attention from beginning to end, even if the end result is largely underwhelming. But I’d rather watch incomplete and interesting movies than corporate-engineered slop (which we’ve seen far too many times this year) all day, and I look forward to Esmail’s next project beyond Mr. Robot and ultra-cerebral Netflix original movies. But one thing’s for sure: buy physical media.

3/5

Leave the World Behind is now playing in select theatres and will be released on Netflix on December 8. What did you think of the movie? What did you think of the lead performances? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to follow us on social media!

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Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent

Maxance is a freelance film and TV writer, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the University of Montreal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies.