Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Mahershala Ali deliver nuanced performances that elevate a complex screenplay
Story: A family on a week getaway in a plush home in the countryside soon realise that the network and connectivity have stopped functioning as a result of a mysterious blackout. A father and a daughter show up at the doorstep as the family vacation quickly spirals into chaos.
Review: It is perplexing that an apocalyptic thriller has flown under the radar with subdued hype leading up to its release, considering it is headlined by Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Mahershala Ali, with a cameo by Kevin Bacon. Even more so as it is based on the critically acclaimed eponymous novel by Rumaan Alam. Be that as it may, Leave the World Behind has finally premiered on Netflix after a limited theatrical release, and it is undeniably a film that deserves to be screened to a wider audience in theatres.
The film opens with a rather innocuous atmosphere as the Sanford family decide to go on an impromptu vacation at a luxurious rental home, far away from the city. While the narrative does tease that something ominous is heading towards the family four, it also reaffirms to the audience that it is not a run-of-the-mill thriller featuring killers and psychopaths. The youngest of the family, Rose, serves as the story’s plot device, as the one who informs the characters around her and the audience about the unexplained phenomena slowly unravelling around the protagonists. The rest of the family are largely dismissive of Rose’s observations at first, but slowly begin to grasp the reality of their predicament after G H Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la Herrold) turn up at their doorsteps in the middle of the night.
The narrative fully takes shape once the Scotts and the Sanfords decide to share the living space. The plot initially teases the Scotts somehow being responsible for the internet and network blackouts, especially through Julia Roberts’ character Amanda Sanford. However, Ali’s measured performance has a convincing quality that assures the audience that he is not as deceptive as Amanda fears him to be. His daughter Ruth on the other hand is brash and speaks her mind freely, often snarking remarks aimed at infuriating Amanda. Myha'la Herrold essays the role of Ruth as the entitled and highly opinionated rich young woman to perfection. The more experienced members of the cast such as Roberts, Hawke, and Ali demonstrate why they are some of the best in the business. Additionally, it is a delight for any cinephile to have both Kevin Bacon and Ethan Hawke share screen space.
Roberts’ turn as the cynical Amanda and Hawke as the soft-spoken Clay, make for an interesting couple – almost similar to Phil and Claire Dunphy from Modern Family. Each of the main characters shares a unique dynamic. As the narrative progresses these dynamics are fleshed out as the film subverts its genre from psychological thriller to an apocalyptic science fiction that explores themes of nihilism, existentialism, racism, and a commentary on the socio-political fabric of the United States. Director Sam Esmail, who is best known for helming the acclaimed series Mr. Robot, has taken a few liberties from the source material but has effortlessly translated the eerie sensation of doom and gloom of the story to the screen.
The final scenes of the film offer a unique perspective to the audience about the effects of isolation from global connectivity, a subtle reference to the plight of civilians in war zones who are cut off from the internet and other telecommunication services. While the film’s climax is an unconventional payoff to the overarching mystery, it does offer a glimmer of hope to the primary protagonists that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Verdict: Leave the World Behind is an intriguing apocalyptic film that is told through the lens of a psychological thriller. The film does not lean on dramatic or pulsating sequences, instead, it peels away at the mystery that has engulfed its protagonists at a methodical pace. The star-studded ensemble play their roles with aplomb and are pivotal in setting the eerie tone of the film.