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AFI Fest Review: Sam Esmail’s Leave the World Behind Is a Stylized End-Times Thriller

A perfect getaway rarely comes without some sort of catch, and that’s particularly true in movies. It may not be clear right away how things are going to fall apart and how fast it’s going to happen, but stories about purely happy vacations aren’t all that common. Sam Esmail takes that to the extreme in his adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind, as one family escapes New York City for a country outing just in time for the end of the world as they know it.

Esmail’s first film in almost a decade is an unnerving thriller that starts innocently enough, with Amanda (Julia Roberts) spiriting her family away to a quiet Long Island hamlet on a whim, eager to get away from everything, particularly all the people she professes to hate. Her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) is affable enough, and their children Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) preoccupied with other things. After a mysterious and unexplained event on the beach, things take a darker turn when G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and Ruth (Myha’la) show up at the house claiming to be the owners and seeking shelter due to a power outage in the city.

Mahershala Ali in Leave the World Behind (Netflix)

Not knowing what is going on is key to the entire tone and mood of this film. It’s clear that something is very wrong, and being in a house that feels too clean and big only adds to the sense of isolation. Esmail collaborates with his regular Cinematographer Tod Campbell and Composer Mac Quayle to enhance the suspense. The camera plays with space and makes the house creepy even though what’s outside is surely more of a threat, frequently panning down from floor to floor to show the state of growing unease permeating through its walls. The music cues audiences in to be more scared than they might otherwise be, sounding alarm bells when things feel off rather than waiting for visual confirmation of some unknown threat being actualized.

Esmail is best known for creating Mr. Robot, but this film bears much more similarity to his follow-up Prime Video series, Homecoming. In addition to reteaming him with Roberts, this film builds tension by presenting ordinary people in theoretically ordinary situations, so normal that they prevent them from realizing that something doesn’t add up. When a large boat appears in the distance on the beach, Clay concludes there must be a port nearby, and Rose’s subsequent warnings that it’s getting much closer are dismissed by her parents, who must know better, since its presence on the beach wouldn’t make any sense. When everyone – particularly adults – have logical explanations for things that defy logic, that’s when it’s time to get worried.

At its AFI Fest World Premiere, Esmail billed Leave the World Behind as a disaster movie, though it’s one that hews closer to a psychological thriller with the backdrop of the world falling apart. Characters are therefore emphasized over action, and this film does do a strong job of focusing on each of its central players and the things that they connect to during this unsettling time. The dialogue is better than it should be for a film that often involves conjectures about inexplicable events, and the film as a whole works better when answers aren’t concretely defined but vague doom is still in the air.

A scene from Leave the World Behind (Netflix)

In her first dramatic film role since 2018’s Ben is Back, Roberts does away with all niceties to portray someone who barely hides her disdain for the people around her, delivering a few thinly-veiled racist barbs at her unexpected visitors before halfheartedly apologizing for her snap judgments. Ali is cool and composed, immediately trustworthy even if there’s something he’s evidently hiding, and seeing him lose that composure is the best indicator that there’s little hope left. Myha’la continues to demonstrate after headlining HBO’s Industry and a supporting role in Bodies Bodies Bodies that she is an exceptional actress with a knack for communicating frustrated aggression, which comes across best in her prickly scenes with Roberts. The standout is Mackenzie, previously seen in the CBS sitcom United States of Al, who delivers all of Rose’s precocious lines with a fantastic energy and knows how to make the most of every joke.

Introducing the film’s AFI Fest premiere, American Film Institute President Bob Gazzale proudly proclaimed that there would be no virtual screenings, citing the sanctity of the theater experience. It’s an ironic statement given that this film will surely reach the most eyeballs on a streaming service in people’s own homes.

This is a film that will certainly land better in a dark theater with no interruptions, keeping audiences on the edge of their seat and free from distractions that might give them time to question the coherence of the film’s plot. Smartly choosing style over substance, this won’t be an awards contender but could still be a crowdpleaser. Leave the World Behind doesn’t break new ground but offers an intense, immersive journey into uncertainty that should prove decently satisfying to those willing to go for the ride.

Grade: B

Leave the World Behind will be released nto select cities on Nov. 22 and then stream on Netflix starting Dec. 8.

Studio: Netflix
Cast: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Farrah Mackenzie, Charlie Evans and Kevin Bacon
Director: Sam Esmail
Screenwriter: Sam Esmail
Producers: Sam Esmail, Chad Hamilton, Julia Roberts
DP: Tod Campbell
Production Design: Anastasia White
Costume Design: Catherine Marie Thomas
Editor: Lisa Lassek
Score by: Mac Quayle

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