This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. The gateway to great art lies in caring for the artist.
By the middle of Leave the World Behind’s hefty two hours and 18 minutes, I noticed a crick in my neck. Never had I watched a movie where I shook my head and said, “White people…” so many times. It was a shared sentiment.
Part 1: The House
Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind chronicles two families affected by an unknown threat; the Sanford family: Amanda (Julia Roberts), Clay (Ethan Hawke), Archie (Charlie Evans), and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie); and the Scotts: G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and Ruth (Myha’la Herrold). Amanda has rented an Airbnb for the weekend and packed the family to go. When they arrive, they discover a gorgeous house. The kids especially love the pool, and Clay finds himself at home in the chef’s kitchen.
Things go well for the Sanfords until the Wi-Fi and cellular service goes out. In the middle of the night, a knock at the door sends a skeptical (and misanthropic) Amanda into panic mode. When they open the door, a man in a fancy tux and a younger woman in an elegant dress stand outside. He introduces himself as “George,” aka G.H. Scott, aka the house owner whom Amanda corresponded with through email. He meets Amanda’s seemingly racist suspicions with laments about the influx of modern technology: “If we’d talked on the phone, you would have been able to hear my voice, and you would know it was me.”
A power outage has crippled New York City, and G.H. managed to get himself and Ruth to the beach hamlet and safety. He acknowledges the strangeness of the situation and offers the Sanfords half of their money back in cash, along with the provision that he and Ruth stay in the in-law suite downstairs. Amanda begrudgingly agrees.
Though the synopsis of Part 1: The House seems pretty straightforward, the devil indeed hides in the details. While at the beach, Rose notices an oil tanker far in the distance. A few moments later, it appears to move closer. (This triggered my first “White people” moment.) While watching the gigantic oil tanker come closer and closer to shore, the people on the beach stand and watch. Only in the last possible moment do they finally scatter out of the way. It’s billed as a navigation issue, and everyone seems content with the explanation.
Another devilish moment occurs when the Scotts arrive. G.H. immediately addresses Amanda by name and explains his predicament. Yet Amanda can’t believe they own the house. Cue the back half of Part One, consisting of G.H. and Ruth trying to prove themselves to the Sanfords, especially Amanda. Ruth does so with biting wit and disdain. G.H. tries to remain diplomatic but can’t help throwing a jab or two. (When Amanda shares they live in Park Slope, G.H. calls it “affordable,” and the fall of Amanda’s face is truly remarkable to watch.)
Part Two: Too Many Ingredients
Ultimately, Leave the World Behind concerns the human condition clothed in a cyber-terrorism drama. Director Esmail made his name primarily for Mr. Robot and the popular podcast adaptation Homecoming. Both deal with apocalyptic worlds adversely affected by technology. Because Esmail cut his teeth producing series, his pacing feels suited to covering a multistory arc. In a two-hour movie, there’s far less need for sustained tension. The first time watching this film leaves the viewer pleasantly stressed with the mysteries that have yet to be solved. Upon rewatch, we anticipate a great deal of fast-forwarding. The Mr. Robot-like directorial flourishes add exciting visuals but do little to enhance or forward the story. Esmail sustains a throughline of “the animals are trying to tell us something,” but it’s difficult to tell if the animals are trying to warn them, trying to kill them, or are just mystic misdirection.
These moments also distract from the heart of the film. Once the movie places these scenes in the “we can’t do anything about it now” territory, the character interactions begin to shine. Julia Roberts does an exceptional job playing Amanda, inhabiting the “eventual millionaire” mentality of many middle-upper-class Americans. It’s “fake it till you make it on steroids,” as she acts much snobbier in her station than she may have the right to. Amanda’s marketing job reveals that she’s taken away only the absolute worst in researching people. She is shrewd and distrustful but also conniving, manipulative and selfish.
We learn that G.H.'s wife (and Ruth’s mother) is on a business trip in Morocco and returning to the country the next day. Amanda doesn’t know this and rants and raves about information G.H. tried to keep from Ruth to protect her. Amanda shrugs it off as though this injustice is only being done to her. When the Scotts arrived, Amanda kindled an immediate Karen-like disgust of Ruth, and the two got under each other’s skin. So when Amanda says things that make Ruth lose hope without even considering the impact it could have her (while at the same time attempting to shield her own children from the truth of what’s happening), it drives a wedge between them.
The narrative centers solidly on the families, so while we're always pleased to see Kevin Bacon, his arrival as a survivalist doomsday lunatic feels a bit like overkill. The idea that people cannot trust one another, and that if the world goes to chaos, people will become feral and instantly turn on one another, is one that – while popular in movies – is hard to contend with in the real world. On the one hand, more than enough post-apocalyptic films portray this phenomenon that people should know how not to act when it comes to the decimation of humanity. On the other hand, humans are humans.
Part Three: Deep Thoughts
Leave the World Behind tries to tackle a lot. The movie wants to discuss race, class, international politics, an evil cabal of the world’s leaders, and the dangers of rogue technology. Ultimately, it has a message about believing in yourself and trusting intuition. Is it about taking the helicopter after asking God to save you from the flood? Yes. It’s all those things…and that may hurt the film in the eyes of most viewers. When unfocused time gets stuffed with too many topics, the filler seems even more elongated and unnecessary. If Esmil had focused on three or four interconnected talking points, he could have shaved an extraneous half hour from the film. He could have still kept the intensity while delivering a stronger narrative impact.
In the face of minor flaws, Leave the World Behind still blossoms. It will enchant and terrify viewers in equal measure. Some framing shots have a powerful impact and serve the movie well. The actors do top-notch work, with Ethan Hawke standing out as the hapless husband. Mackenzie shines as a Friends-addicted Rose whose only regret is that she may never find out what happens with Ross and Rachel. Myha’la Herrald, last seen in A24’s Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, also delivers a great performance. She has a manic sort of inner turmoil that belies her outer coolness. She plays a detached Gen-Zer with authenticity: though an adult, she still needs a mother.
Overall, while we can’t say the movie satisfies, Leave the World Behind doesn't really want to appease. It wants to provoke thought and start conversations about its numerous themes. In that way, the film succeeds and deserves a watch.
Leave the World Behind premieres in theaters on November 22nd and then move to Netflix December 8th.
Score: 6.5/10 SPECS