Many movies drop us into a post-apocalyptic world without modern amenities.
“Leave the World Behind” wonders what it’s like at the start of the mayhem.
The thriller isn’t interested in big, bold action sequences or flashy effects. The focus is smaller, more contained on how two families process what could be an extended blackout or the end of America.
The story’s simplistic messaging can’t derail the intensity brought by three great performances, making the film’s ominous tone inescapable.
Amanda and Clay Sanford (Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke) rent a beach-side vacation home to escape from their day-to-day grind. She’s a burned-out executive while he’s a chipper college professor.
Their trip, featuring their two standard-issue teens, is interrupted in dramatic fashion.
First, an oil tanker crashes on the beach, forcing them to run for their lives. Later, the owners of the rental property show up in the middle of the night, fleeing a city-wide blackout.
Oh, and the Sandfords’ phones and iPads suddenly stop working.
No WiFi? The horror, the horror.
Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold play G.H. and Ruth, the affluent property owners who happen to be black. Amanda is instantly suspicious about them for reasons that aren’t fully explained.
Racism? A Mama Bear protecting her cubs? Plot expediency? All three?
The families must co-exist to not only stay safe but figure out what’s happening to their country. Is it a terrorist attack? Hackers gone wild? The dawn of World War III?
“Leave” isn’t eager to spill the details, which helps maintain the sense of dread. So does writer/director Sam Esmail’s camerawork. It’s showy at first, maneuvering around the vacation home like a real estate agent’s dream video.
Those clever angles keep us as off-balanced as the troubled families.
Much has been said about an exchange between Ruth and G.H. suggesting they shouldn’t trust the Sandfords because of their race.
In what world is this not considered racist?
"Leave the World Behind" produced, in part, by Barack and Michelle Obama.
“I’m asking for you to remember that if the world falls apart, trust should not be doled out easily to anyone, especially white people.”
— Catherine E. (@CatherineUSA1) December 11, 2023
There’s nothing wrong with the sequence. Ruth is clearly a Gen Z type with all the personality tics that entails. G.H. is a good father, someone willing to meet his adult daughter halfway in times of crisis.
And, yes, the pair have racist feelings toward white people. Should storytellers not include flaws in their characters?
Esmail tips his ideological hand with a few measured moments. Kevin Bacon’s character, a cruel survivalist, is repeatedly framed with an American flag in the background. We’re led to believe his selfishness reflects the country’s true spirit.
Amanda delivers a monologue about how much she hates her corporate job. It’s more revealing, though, about the storyteller’s vision of America as a capitalist state that poisons the soul.
There’s even a line the Rev. Jeremiah Wright might applaud. To paraphrase, America’s chickens are coming home to roost.
The movie’s critique of how we lose ourselves in technology and fluffy TV sitcoms isn’t original, but it does land as intended.
The messaging moments are often banal but fleeting, and we’re never taken out of the story or the characters’ plight. Credit Roberts, Ali and Hawke for making that possible. They’re equally brilliant, finding fresh layers in roles that could have been cartoonish in less capable hands.
Roberts and Ali share several outstanding scenes together, including an unexpected whiff of sexual chemistry.
Movies like “Leave the World Behind” rarely stick the landing. The setup is what counts, and it takes an exceptional scribe to pull all the strings together.
That doesn’t happen here despite a cheeky final shot.
The third act features a clumsy sequence involving Bacon’s conspiracy theorist and a poorly realized CGI moment involving wildlife.
“Leave the World Behind” isn’t a racial screed. Far from it. It’s a brilliantly assembled swipe at America, one where the characters have more than enough depth to make even patriots appreciate the artistry in play.
HiT or Miss: “Leave the World Behind” delivers a disorienting thriller powered by great performances and an unsettling premise.