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“Leave the World Behind” Fizzles Out

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 7th, 2023

Film poster: “Leave the World Behind”

Leave the World Behind (Sam Esmail, 2023) 2 out of 4 stars.

There is a delightfully eerie atmosphere of defamiliarization in the first half of Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind that propels what is a slight narrative through many engaging twists and turns. Unfortunately, the eventual revelations about the central mystery prove less than what was promised, far too ordinary to sustain the earlier tone of depressing wonder. Writer/director Sam Esmail (Amazon’s Homecoming series), adapting Rumaan Alam’s eponymous 2020 novel, can only work his magic for so long before the trick plays out. Let’s be glad for what wizardry there is.

“I fucking hate people,” says Brooklyn-based ad executive Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts, Ben Is Back) at the start, leading to her impulsive decision to decamp to Long Island’s The Hamptons for the weekend, husband Clay (Ethan Hawke, The Black Phone) and two teenage kids in tow. Despite her apparent misanthropy, Amanda appears a loving wife and mother, sneaking off for a quick vacation dalliance with Clay while their progeny enjoy the pool. It’s a gorgeous spot, their Airbnb a modern glass-paneled mansion.

l-r: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, and Myha’la in LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND ©Netflix

But suddenly, at the beach, things take a turn for the decidedly odd as an oil tanker barrels straight towards them from far away, eventually grounding itself to everyone’s shock and surprise. That’s hardly the end of it. Soon, in the evening, the owner of the house, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali, Swan Song), shows up with his college-age daughter, Ruth (Myha’la, Dumb Money) in tow, offering a reason that strikes the Sandfords (well, Amanda, anyway) as suspicious. Still, it’s not a good look for a bunch of white folks to refuse to believe that a well-dressed Black man actually belongs there. Then again, who just shows up at their own Airbnb, requesting entry?

That riddle will (sort of) be solved, but not before Ruth’s hackles are raised as Amanda digs in with her misgivings. The genial Clay tries to mediate, but there is indeed something that the well-connected G.H. is not telling them. Could it be related to the many deer that now gather nearby, staring with unsettling intensity at Amanda and Clay’s 13-year-old daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie, Ascension)? With the phones and internet no longer working (though the house’s power stays on, for some reason), there’s nothing to do but speculate about the increasingly bizarre state of things. Rose’s older brother, Archie (Charlie Evans), chooses to gaze longingly at Ruth, but all Rose wants to do is watch the final episode of the sitcom Friends, which now seems impossible. There’s tragedy all around.

l-r: Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie in LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND ©Netflix

As it turns out, there actually is real catastrophe brewing, though the various elements of it never quite gel in a coherent manner. That’s clearly part of what Esmail is going for—keep us guessing and confused to put us in the same frame of mind as his protagonists—but at some point it begins to feel like the bizarrerie is the point, deeper meaning eluding us. Sure, G.H. and his survivalist neighbor, Danny (Kevin Bacon, You Should Have Left) share thoughts on the apparent breakdown of society, but what does that have to do with the deer or the flamingos that drop from the sky into the pool?

The performances are the reason to watch, as everyone, young folks included, delivers heartfelt (and sometimes comic, too) turns. But ultimately, this feels a bit like watered-down Sartre (as in, No Exit), even if the facts on the ground don’t entirely fit that comparison. Or do they? That’s always a possibility, given the leanings toward metaphor and allegory. Maybe everyone really has “left the world behind.” I don’t quite buy it, but it’s as good an explanation as any for what this occasionally fascinating, not-quite-successful film has to offer.

l-r: Mahershala Ali and Julia Roberts in LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND. Credit: JoJo Whilden ©Netflix

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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