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Leave the World Behind review: a subversive disaster thriller

Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Ethan Hawke, and Julia Roberts stand together in Leave the World Behind.
Leave the World Behind
“Sam Esmail's Leave the World Behind could have been 20 minutes shorter, but it's still an entertaining, well-acted thriller about two families trapped in a horrifying situation.”
  • Mahershala Ali's grounded, scene-stealing performance
  • Sam Esmail's ambitious directorial style
  • A pitch-perfect ending
  • Several underbaked third-act moments
  • Numerous unconvincing CGI animals and effects
  • A runtime that's 20 minutes too long

Leave the World Behind never makes the predictable choice. From its opening scene, which climaxes with one of America’s most beloved actresses declaring her outright hatred of most people, to its tense final act, the Sam Esmail-directed thriller gets a real kick out of using your expectations against you. Throughout its story, the film evolves from an acidic satire to a paranoia-driven thriller before going to much louder and even bigger places than you expect. Its subversive spirit is, at times, grating, but it’s also what keeps Leave the World Behind’s pulse up even in the moments when it seems closest to devolving into cliché.

The film’s biggest flaw, aside from its overlong runtime, is that it never really goes anywhere. For as many set pieces and explosions as it throws at you, which are more than you might expect, Leave the World Behind never really establishes a sense of forward momentum. That’s partly because its characters are all purposefully trapped in one location that leaves them both stranded and secure, but it’s also due to the film’s plot-heavy structure.

Esmail’s screenplay is extremely faithful to the Rumaan Alam-penned novel that inspired it, and its episodic framework allows Leave the World Behind’s stakes to escalate at the same measured pace as its source material. It’s also what prevents the movie from achieving the level of interiority necessary for its biggest emotional beats to work and its air of paranoia to become as suffocating as it should. The film is an entertaining and surprisingly massive thrill ride, but it never manages to dig quite as far beneath the surface as it wants.

Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, and Myha'la stand on opposite sides of a door in Leave the World Behind.

Leave the World Behind begins abrasively. It throws you straight into the clutches of Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts), a deeply unlikable, combative woman who’s decided, as she informs her laidback husband, Clay (a perfectly cast Ethan Hawke), that they and their kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), need to get away for a while. Amanda has rented an expensive house outside of New York City and it isn’t long before she and her family are on their way to their impromptu vacation.

Once they arrive in their paradise away from home, however, strange things begin to occur. Amanda witnesses a doomsday prepper, Danny (Kevin Bacon), loading several packages of water into his truck’s flatbed, and the Sandfords’ trip to a nearby beach is interrupted when an oil tanker runs aground in front of them — forcing everyone present to evacuate. Later that same night, Clay and Amanda are taken aback by the arrival of G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), the owners of the house they’ve rented out for the weekend. G.H. explains that there was a blackout in the city, and rather than returning to their high-rise apartment, he and his daughter decided to retreat to their more remote home.

Tensions quickly arise between G.H., Ruth, and Amanda, the latter of whom suspects that the other two aren’t being as truthful as they seem. It becomes increasingly clear, though, that G.H. hasn’t lied about the blackout that caused him and Ruth to leave New York City. In fact, through several ominous news alerts, vanishing internet signals, and strange animal sightings, Amanda, Ruth, G.H., and Clay all gradually realize that America’s cyber network has recently been attacked. That isn’t a spoiler, either, as Esmail lays the signs of Leave the World Behind’s central cyberattack on thick before hitting both G.H. and Clay with dangerous encounters that make them fear even more for the safety of themselves and their loved ones.

Mahershala Ali and Natalie Portman stand by a painting in Leave the World Behind.
JoJo Whilden / Netflix

Behind the camera, Esmail often executes Leave the World Behind’s biggest moments with a combination of sweeping camera movements and drone shots that encircle and fly past the film’s performers. These decisions help imbue the thriller with a kinetic visual energy that is largely effective. That said, there are times throughout the film when the Mr. Robot creator’s penchant for visual showmanship veers him too far away from the story he’s telling. Whether it be the disorienting moments when his camera turns unnecessarily end over end as it moves across a room or one scene that strangely stages an emotional conversation between Ali’s G.H. and Myha’la’s Ruth from a visual distance, Esmail’s desire to stun results in him filling Leave the World Behind with tricks that distract more than they inspire awe.

Not all of the director’s stylistic decisions fall flat, fortunately, including a series of shots that float vertically from Clay and Amanda’s second-floor room to G.H. and Ruth’s basement accommodations in their own home. These moments fluidly reinforce Leave the World Behind’s themes about class and race — and they help communicate the geography of the film’s central location. Even in its wildest moments, Esmail’s bravura visual style is grounded at all times as well by Leave the World Behind’s cast. The film doesn’t give Roberts enough to make her character’s arc really work, but she and Hawke are nonetheless well-cast as longtime partners with very different approaches to life. Ali, meanwhile, emerges as the fulcrum upon which so much of the thriller’s story rests — his clear-eyed, spellbinding gaze adding unspoken layers of fear, paranoia, and desperation to all of its most contentious and uncertain moments.

Julia Roberts holds her ears and screams in Leave the World Behind.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much Ali brings to Leave the World Behind. The film is about 20 or 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. Esmail’s clear love of Alam’s original novel prevents him from excising his latest directorial effort of the unnecessary conversations and detours that leave its first two acts disappointingly bloated. Thankfully, it’s impossible to be bored or uninterested whenever Ali’s onscreen, and the actor manages to bring real gravitas to some of Leave the World Behind’s most tedious and bombastic moments. Like all great thrillers, the film also saves its best for last — delivering a third act that is unpredictable, tense, and rewarding.

Leave The World Behind | Official Trailer | Netflix

The thriller’s ultimate ideas about the dangers of isolation aren’t new or revolutionary, but they make sense within its story. Ultimately, they also take a backseat to Leave the World Behind’s more impassioned arguments about the importance of physical media in an increasingly digital world. There’s something particularly amusing about seeing a film produced and distributed by Netflix believe so deeply in the lasting power of DVDs, Blu-rays, and vinyl records. Dramatically speaking, that’s a relatively frivolous final argument for a 141-minute thriller to make. In the case of a decidedly surface-level film like Leave the World Behind, though, it’s fitting.

Leave the World Behind is now streaming on Netflix. For more related content, please check out Leave the World Behind’s ending, explained.

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Alex Welch
Alex Welch is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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