‘Leave the World Behind’ Review: Sam Esmail’s Apocalyptic Drama Is Taut, Terrifying and All Too Real

Mahershala Ali anchors a fabulous ensemble cast that includes Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke

"Leave the World Behind"
(Jojo Whilden/Netflix)

Apocalyptic thrillers are a dime a dozen these days. This year alone M. Night Shyamalan released his own take on the genre — also adapted from a popular novel — with this year’s “Knock at the Cabin.” But watching director/producer/screenwriter Sam Esmail’s “Leave the World Behind” makes Shyamalan’s film feel quaint by comparison, with the “Mr. Robot” creator telling a two-hour descent into chaos that is compelling and utterly terrifying.

Based on the novel by Rumaan Alam, the film follows Amanda and Clay (Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke), a couple who decide on a whim to leave their New York home with their two children and go on a weekend vacation to the small “hamlet” of Point Comfort in Long Island. But things go south when the owner of the house they’ve rented, a man known as G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), arrives with his daughter. He claims that a mysterious blackout has knocked out the power in the city and asks to stay with the family. From there all manner of strangeness starts to develop.

To talk too much about what happens in “Leave the World Behind” risks diluting the adrenaline of experiencing the movie. Esmail borrows from the playbook of popular series like “The Twilight Zone” — Mac Quayle’s dark soundtrack is an immediate throwback — as well as “Black Mirror,” but only so much as to convey the haunting dread of knowing something bizarre is happening and we don’t know or understand what.

And that’s the joy of seeing Esmail’s script unfold. How the audience perceives things going down says more about who they are and how they’d respond to the destabilization of the world then the movie itself. Esmail looks at how the loss of governmental control would make us greedy, racist or, in the case of Amanda’s daughter Rosie (a charming Farrah Mackenzie) desperately clinging to the one source of joy that we have left; in Rosie’s case it’s her blind adoration of the TV show “Friends.”

Told in five chapters starting with “The House,” the script paces things very deliberately, so much so that the 2 hour and 18 minute runtime does become excessive though never boring. Amanda and Clay are such a stock American couple as to feel artificial, with Amanda’s opening speech to clay about leaving the city coming off as stilted, crafting a disjointed, awkward air for what’s to come. But once Ali’s Scott and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la) show up, things become all too real.

If you’ve seen a movie told about the end of the world you know humanity shows their true colors quickly, and Esmail’s script deconstructs the elements that would no doubt pop up but aren’t explored in the genre. Case in point, the overt racism people use everyday that would only intensify as the world implodes. Roberts allows herself to play a truly ugly character as Amanda. A woman who, on the surface, is understandable. A strange man shows up at her house and while she’s scared her husband tells her to calm down and let him see if he gets a “bad vibe” off the guy.

But as things develop it’s evident Amanda is a good old-fashioned racist, continuously called out by Ruth. Roberts and Myha’la are amazing to watch together, with the former’s explosive anger complemented by the younger actress’ more restrained, logical awareness of the type of woman Amanda truly is. But for how great they are “Leave the World Behind” is truly Ali’s movie.

In a role initially slated for Denzel Washington, Ali brings a similar level of gravitas but has such a deep well of empathy and warmth to him. From the minute he arrives the audience may feel distrustful, but Ali’s expressions and love for his daughter shine through that it’s hard to believe this man won’t save everyone from the apocalypse. Kudos also go out to Ethan Hawke and, in a minor role, Kevin Bacon, who play two differing views of masculinity that are amazing to see play off each other in one highly tense scene.

Instead of getting into discussions of spirituality or gender dynamics — it’s strangely refreshing that the world starts collapsing and sexual assault isn’t even a factor here (looking at you “28 Days Later”) — Esmail’s script looks at what can only pass as realities. The two families in the film deal with misinformation and questions of who is responsible for the attack in a way that, sadly, feels relevant within the last week. But as Ali says in the movie, the most terrifying feeling about the end of the world is the realization that “no one is in control” and we are truly on our own.

“Leave the World Behind” enters the stage as one of the year’s best and no doubt will spark massive amounts of conversation. It’s cast helps take viewers on a journey that, while they’ll feel the length, they’ll be so compelled by what’s happening it won’t even matter. Just don’t expect to sleep easy after seeing it.

Netflix will release “Leave the World Behind” on December 8.

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One response to “‘Leave the World Behind’ Review: Sam Esmail’s Apocalyptic Drama Is Taut, Terrifying and All Too Real”

  1. Sistem Informasi Avatar

    What are some of the notable journalists or contributors associated with TheWrap, and what kind of articles or stories are they known for?

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