When the end of the world comes, will we know it for what it is? In Leave the World Behind, the slick and stylish new Netflix thriller directed by Sam Esmail and based on the 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, the apocalypse is plainly here. What makes it so scary is that no one knows exactly what it involves.
The bulk of Leave the World Behind covers a brief weekend in a sleepy Long Island hamlet, far away from the rest of civilization. Yuppie white Brooklynites Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke) have rented a vacation home for the weekend, dragging along their girl-crazy son and Friends-obsessed daughter. In the middle of the night, they hear a knock on the door. Smooth-talking G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and snarky Ruth (Myha’la), a Black father and daughter in exquisite formalwear, have arrived.
G.H. owns the house where Amanda and Clay are staying, he explains. He was in New York, but something terrible and mysterious has happened in the city. There was a blackout; the internet is down; the phones are out; every TV station is playing the emergency broadcast signal. Now G.H. wants to take shelter at his vacation home with his daughter. Will Clay and Amanda mind?
Brittle, racist Amanda minds very much, although amiable Clay is pretty willing to go along with the plan after G.H. offers to reimburse them $1,000 off their vacation rental. But as the families arrange themselves in an uneasy standoff, it becomes hauntingly clear that there really is something strange going on. Navigation machinery on cars, boats, and planes all seems to be malfunctioning. Animals are acting hypnotized. The air is rent with strange noises. Yet with the internet down, it becomes impossible for anyone to figure out exactly what any of these bizarre phenomena mean. It’s as if they’re stuck, helpless, in a premodern moment.
In the absence of any clear information, the apocalypse takes the form of each character’s most potent fears. Amanda blames mysterious Black people. Clay panics at finding himself in a situation that reveals he is not the good liberal he hopes to be. G.H. dreads a situation he doesn’t know how to talk himself out of.
Esmail, who earned his chops as the showrunner of Mr. Robot, excels at drawing out his characters’ paranoia. His characters always seemed to find themselves placed too symmetrically within the frame of the camera, so that their movements acquire an eerie, predetermined quality: Someone knew they’d end up there. But who?
Eerily precise, too, is their language. In Esmail’s script, everyone’s voice is heightened, artificial, literary. The results are not always kind to Roberts, whose great strength as an actress is her magnetic physical presence: as Amanda, she feels trapped behind a wall of words for much of the film. Ali, however, makes a meal out of Esmail’s words as suave G.H. The movie belongs to him from the moment he shows up, immaculate in a tuxedo at 3 am, his smile a little too polite to be natural. You just know someone that debonair has to be hiding something — but he keeps you guessing about what it could be.
Leave the World Behind is based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel of the same title, but the movie has subtly different priorities than the book does. Alam’s novel got its satirical bite from its pleasurable invocation of bourgeois creature comforts: all-white linens in the bathroom and a copper pot filler in the kitchen. These are the comforts in which Alam’s characters wallow, the lovely things they use to distract themselves from their responsibilities until it’s too late and the world is already ending. They seduce you, too, as you read, and their push and pull becomes the play of the book: Outside, the apocalypse may be raging, but inside, the two families are drinking good wine and have tossed pasta with fresh herbs and garlic and expensive salted European butter.
Esmail has no feel for that kind of nicety. He runs his camera in a perfunctory pan over the amenities of that beautiful house (a pool, a fire pit, a smart TV), but he is on a fundamental level too chilly as a filmmaker to enjoy pleasures as tactile as those of a perfectly tricked-out kitchen. (Side note: A Nancy Meyers Leave the World Behind would have been something to see.)
Instead, Esmail’s characters are blinded by a different kind of bourgeois comfort food, one that only comes into focus in the film’s final, biting, and deeply satisfying sequence. It’s a moment that feels aimed directly at the pieties of the streaming entertainment moment, as shows like WandaVision endlessly assure us that bad TV serves something fundamental to the human soul. In Esmail’s hands, the moment is so sharp-edged you might gasp to see it in a Netflix streaming original.
Leave the World Behind is in select theaters from November 22 and on Netflix from December 8.