Film Review – Leave the World Behind
Leave the World Behind
The thing about movies where people face a catastrophic event – whether it be nuclear fallout, a zombie apocalypse, an alien invasion, etc. – is that they usually start off with an intriguing premise. Everyday life gets interrupted by mysterious happenings, and as characters realize what’s going on, panic ensues. Humanity boils down to necessities: food, shelter, protection, and so on. Storytellers use this setup as a way of examining the innerworkings of society. The problem is that strong beginnings don’t always have strong finishes. It requires a lot of skill to take an apocalyptic story and provide an ending that is both satisfactory and thought provoking. In the case of Leave the World Behind (2023), it misses the mark.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flourishes. In fact, writer/director Sam Esmail (adapting Rumaan Alam’s novel) starts off with a captivating and tension-filled beginning. To get some much-needed rest and relaxation, married couple Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke) take their kids Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans) to a rental house far from the city. Despite the lack of internet and cell phone connection, things start off smoothly – until some troubling events occur. News reports, emergency broadcast messages, the crashing of an oil tanker onto a beach – these all build the anxiety. After retreating to the house, another event takes place. Two strangers, introducing themselves as G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) show up at the front door late at night. G.H. explains that he owns the place, that a blackout happened in the city, and that he and Ruth thought the safest thing to do was to come back home, despite it being occupied by renters.
This situation is rife for tension. Although G.H. is friendly enough and gives all the right answers, the fact that he and Ruth showed up out of the blue is odd. Amanda – clearly unnerved – argues that she doesn’t want strangers in the house or near her children. Is she acting this way because G.H. and Ruth are black? She uses a lot of coded language (such as “they” or “them”) that hints toward racial prejudice. Clay, on the other hand, is more accommodating, letting G.H. and Ruth into the house without a second thought. These early scenes are the best sections of the film. Seeing the four dance around one another, trying to get a handle on a stressful situation, is fascinating. Roberts, Ali, Hawke, and Myha’la are all very good in their respective parts. Their characters clash, butt heads, compromise, and work together to not only find out what’s going on in the world, but to manage the awkwardness between them.
But once things get rolling, the narrative dips. The writing doesn’t sustain the momentum of the first act, filling the second and third with increasing questions but without a lot of resolution. Not every movie needs to fill in every single detail. In fact, some benefit from being intentionally ambiguous. But here, the writing leaves too many open avenues, too many strange riddles. The dialogue has characters speaking around what they are thinking without actually saying it. You ever watch a movie or TV show where all the problems could be solved if people just spoke what was on their mind? That’s precisely what’s going on. It also doesn’t help that all the characters are thinly drawn. Amanda is grumpy, Clay is laid back, G.H. is enigmatic. They all operate in a single gear. This is especially true for Rose and Archie. Archie is your typical, hormone raging teen, while Rose’s main trait is that she’s obsessed with the Ross and Rachel relationship in Friends. Not exactly the deepest character development.
Speaking of television, Leave the World Behind reminded me a whole lot of Lost. For those of you that remember that show, a lot of its appeal hinged on the unknown. We tuned in each week hoping for some clarity to all the bizarre things that took place, only for more questions to arise. The same can be said about this scenario. Whether it is a herd of deer acting creepy or loud noises coming from the sky, the narrative continuously presents these breadcrumbs that lead to nowhere. There’s not much cohesion – each element felt like they were smashed together. The writing works itself out of a jam by simply not addressing any of it. All the loose threads are left dangling in the wind. There’s a fine line between a movie that leaves things open for our imagination and one that doesn’t provide enough material to come up with a valid interpretation. This falls in the latter category.
With that said, the camerawork is out of control – and I mean that as a good thing. Tod Campbell’s cinematography is on hyperdrive. It goes in, out and around spaces like a bat out of hell. The camera will zoom in and out of rooms, through doors and walls, go sideways, upside down, and from every possible angle. When Amanda, Clay, and the kids are driving along the street, the frame goes topsy turvy in an uncut shot. It moves from Amanda in a closeup to a low angle looking up towards Clay, and then glides to the backseat to capture the kids’ expressions. During another sequence, the camera shoots the family huddled together in the upstairs bedroom, and then shifts (again in an unbroken shot) all the way down the side of the house to the basement, where G.H. and Ruth are staying. The style makes the characters look like they are in a toy house. Are all the visual gymnastics overreach? Perhaps, but in a story where everybody acts deathly serious, it’s refreshing to see the camerawork have this much fun.
So, where does this all lead? Does it lead to anything? That’s something Leave the World Behind doesn’t really address. It touches upon our reliance on technology and lack of face-to-face interaction but doesn’t explore them to their full potential. It introduces race and class, but then abandons those ideas entirely. Is it about environmentalism, or America’s standing in international affairs? The film contains these ingredients but doesn’t make anything out of them. You may ask, “Does it have to be about anything?” If that’s the case, then this is a missed opportunity. For a cast this talented, and a visual palette willing to take chances, we come away feeling like we ran around in circles with nothing to show for it.