A director overindulges: Despite a great premise, solid performances and a good ending, Netflix’s ‘Leave the World Behind’ is just OK

By Bob Grimm

Leave the World Behind, the new apocalyptic thriller from writer-director Sam Esmail, left me on the fence between “liked” and “disliked” more than any other 2023 film.

It’s a great-looking movie with an interesting premise and solid performances—but the movie is just a little too much in love with itself, with pacing problems, big moments that aren’t really big and too many camera tricks. I was distracted, annoyed and underwhelmed too many times for me to recommend the movie.

Julia Roberts stars as Amanda, a frustrated New York City mom who wants to take her family out of the city for an impromptu vacation. She books a rental and rouses Clay (Ethan Hawke), her mild-mannered husband, out of bed. They grab the kids, Archie (Charles Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), and head out to Long Island for a couple of days to enjoy the beach. All is going well—until an oil tanker almost crashes into them as they sunbathe.

G.H.—a well-dressed, seemingly kind man—and his daughter, Ruth (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold), show up at the doorstep, claiming that the rental is actually their place, and saying that they need to bunk down for a while … because something’s afoot. Due to blackouts, Wi-Fi outages and non-functioning phones, it seems like some sort of hacker nonsense is turning New York upside down. The kids can’t use their phones and tablets, a sure sign the apocalypse is nigh!

Amanda is skittish about having strangers in the house, but G.H. seems genuine—and seems to know more about what’s going on than he’s able to reveal. Rich clients and rumors, some seemingly true, have G.H. alarmed, but he’s proceeding with caution so as to not upset the other family. The precarious relationship between the two families provides the film’s other dramatic core (besides the whole world-ending thing), and it is sporadically amusing.

Esmail (the creator of Mr. Robot) unfortunately gets too carried away with stylish flourishes like long shots of descending from one floor to another in the huge home, and tracking shots involving confused animals and bewildered people. The movie is 138 minutes long and probably would’ve worked better at a tidy 90 minutes. Some sequences feel like the filmmaker was trying to amaze with his camera and editing mastery—but instead was being overindulgent.

Roberts is OK, although her character has some elements that make her unlikable—perhaps unnecessarily unlikeable. Amanda has enough depth without her character’s undercurrent of racism, severe overreaction to deer, and strange and out-of-nowhere flirtation with infidelity. It’s Julia Roberts; you don’t have to give her character 15 layers.

Not surprisingly, Hawke is once again the MVP of a film. His Clay is a great creation, an easy-going guy who might have done a bad thing or two—but he’s laid back and cool, so who cares? Hawke continues to mature as an actor with every performance, and his is the best in the movie. Ali and Herrold are strong as well, creating an interesting father-daughter dynamic. Kevin Bacon shows up for a couple of scenes and makes the most of his time.

After a long buildup, the film’s ending is interesting enough that I was wishing the rest of the film was better. As I said, I almost liked it, and if you were to tell me you liked it or disliked it, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a movie about which a lot of folks will be on the fence—but we can all agree that a beached oil tanker almost smushing Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke is pretty cool.

Leave the World Behind is now streaming on Netflix.

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