How would you react in a national/worldwide crisis? I think we all got a taste of that during the pandemic, but then again we still had wi-fi and Netflix to tide us through. Technology allowed us to retain a sense of normalcy in some ways, as the world went into lockdown. It’s a different story in Leave the World Behind, where the characters face a mass technological shutdown, leaving them completely blind to the situation they may be facing.
The film begins with Amanda (Julia Roberts) booking a staycay for her family away from the city, on a whim. Her misanthropic nature resulted in her desire to get her family away from the bustle and just people in general. There’s a fantastic tight zoom into Roberts’ face as she proclaims her dislike for people, which is integral to her character arc as the film progresses. So they head out of the city, and everyone’s relaxing, until things take a turn for the bizarre.
Two strangers show up at their doorstep. The man claims to be George (Mahershala Ali), the person who owns this house, and who she corresponded with over email. With him is his daughter Ruth (Myha’la), and he wonders if he could stay at his own home for the night since there’s a blackout in the city. However, with no internet and any form of identification, it’s impossible to verify if he truly owns this house. Amanda feels uncomfortable with the idea immediately, while her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) is a bit more easy-going, especially when George offers a cash discount for the inconvenience.
There’s a sense of unease, as we wonder if George and Ruth are who they say they are. There’s also the question of why they decided to drive all the way out of the city to come stay in their home when they know it’s occupied. Day 2 brings even more uneasiness, as no one has any clue of what they’re up against, and there are uncomfortable revelations to be had when they head outside.
The film is immediately elevated by all these stellar performances. Roberts is wonderfully abrasive and prickly as Amanda, and it’s nice to see her develop a bond with Ali’s George. Both of these characters have some kind of intuition that led them to this house, and Amanda’s the one person George feels he can confide his fears to. He wants to shield Ruth from the harsh reality of society collapsing around them, so chooses to keep things from her, even when he should be doing the opposite. In the hands of a lesser actor, the role of Clay would be a nothing role. He’s not quite the key player the way George is, but Hawke is of course able to deliver such a genuine, affecting performance. The standdown between George, Clay and neighbour Danny (Kevin Bacon) is probably the best scene in the film, and it’s easy to see why these actors are Hollywood heavyweights.
But it is Rose’s (Farrah Mackenzie) arc that is perhaps the most relatable. She feels powerless in her family, no one listens to her and her desires are easily dismissed. She was in the middle of the last episode of the TV show Friends when the world went into shutdown mode, and she wonders if she’ll ever find out how things end up for Ross and Rachel. She never panics and tries to find out what’s going on, merely accepts this new world as her reality, and seeks out what’s most important to her.
For all its strengths, the film does feel dragged out at certain points, and the dialogue in some of the scenes feels wooden and artificial. The jarring camera tilts work at times to amp up tension, but it does come across as very M. Night Shyamalan in the way the film is staged. When two strangers showed up at the house, I thought for a moment that we were going to veer into Knock at the Cabin territory.
Leave the World Behind explores an interesting concept, but it doesn’t feel masterful in the way it’s handled. Still, it’s an easy movie to enjoy given the talent at the centre of it.
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Not everyone would appreciate the apocalytic world director/writer Sam Esmail has created here, but the material is resonant and the cast is exceptional enough to recommend.
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