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Leave the World Behind review: Julia Roberts embraces her dark side in this paranoid, cynical Netflix thriller

The Obamas are listed as producers here – but you do have to wonder what they think of this film’s exploration of America’s fundamental weaknesses

Clarisse Loughrey
Monday 11 December 2023 06:34 GMT
Leave The World Behind trailer

Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail’s apocalyptic thriller Leave the World Behind kicks off with a slow zoom-in on Julia Roberts, as she sneers the words, “I f***ing hate people”. America’s sweetheart has sprinted over to the dark side, and it’s a thrill to see what she does with it. An adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, this is unsubtle but audacious in its speculation on how a cyberattack might roll out in America – which explains the executive producer credits for Barack and Michelle Obama, who can neatly file this next to the string of educational works about civil liberties they’ve already collaborated on with Netflix.

But you do have to wonder what the Obamas think of the dark, highly paranoid cynicism of Esmail’s film, which feels more than anything like a portrait of America’s fundamental weaknesses. Here’s an empire so used to meddling in other people’s business that it’s seemingly unaware that the city behind the drawbridge would crumble with even the faintest whisper of disarray. It’s no coincidence that we’re first introduced to Amanda (Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke), a couple of such bubble-wrapped privilege that they’re able to take themselves and their two kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), on a spontaneous weekend getaway to a rented house on Long Island, New York.

That night, and only after watching an oil tanker run aground at the public beach, the family receive unexpected visitors. A man in a tux, GH Scott (Mahershala Ali), arrives with his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la). A blackout has hit the city, so they’ve retreated to a safe space – this house, he says, is his house. It causes an immediate tension that changes shape over the film’s runtime, but never really dissipates. Esmail’s script doesn’t necessarily centre race, but it’s also keenly aware that white supremacy doesn’t just charitably step aside at the first sign of crisis – in, fact, it’s usually quite the opposite. When Amanda asks GH, “this is your house?”, the “your” is venomous.

Leave the World Behind is, in part, a four-vehicle pileup of personalities: Hawke plays the kind of genial, harmless intellectual he’s naturally aged into, though the film doesn’t let him off scot-free. Ali gives us the control freak with perfect composure, who doesn’t know what to do with the knowledge he’s gained. Myha’la, a knockout in TV’s Industry, captures the frustration of a generation who can see what’s happening but aren’t empowered to vocalise it.

Esmail goes big and bold with his Hitchcock allusions and showy camera work, not unlike M Night Shyamalan. At times, he’s a little on the nose, also not unlike M Night Shyamalan. It suits his vision, which is by no means another “eat the rich” story but does watch these events unfold with a sense of wry hubris – down to the brand of car involved in the film’s scariest, most well-choreographed scene. Yet nothing quite shows Esmail’s hand more than Rose’s chemical-like reliance on Friends, a show which Ruth describes as “nostalgic for a time that never existed”. Yes, it’s ironic that the series is currently available on Netflix – but that’s exactly the kind of thoroughly modern hypocrisy Leave the World Behind revels in.

Dir: Sam Esmail. Starring: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, Kevin Bacon. PG, 141 minutes.

‘Leave the World Behind’ is streaming on Netflix from 8 December

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