‘Leave the World Behind’: It Might Just Be the End of the World in Sam Esmail’s Apocalyptic Thriller

A privileged Brooklyn family’s getaway to the beach turns out to be not so tranquil in writer-director Sam Esmail’s “Leave the World Behind.” Julia Roberts stars as Amanda Sanford, a misanthrope who ironically works in client relations for an advertising firm. Admitting to her professor husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), that she “fucking hates people,” Amanda convinces him to take their two kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), to Long Island for a vacation. Complications arise after they lose cell and internet service shortly after arriving at their luxurious rental home. After other peculiar happenings, Amanda and Clay find a pair of strangers at the door.

G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) is not a stranger, per se, as he introduces himself as the owner of the house, the man with whom Amanda had been previously communicating with via email. He arrives with his twentysomething daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), and Amanda is immediately suspicious of them. Clay is more easygoing and okay with them staying the night after G.H. explains that they drove to Long Island from NYC so he would not have to climb 14 flights of stairs to get into his Park Avenue apartment during a blackout. 

The Sanfords are white and the Scotts are Black. When there is a bit of racial tension early on, Ruth pegs Amanda as a racist. While G.H. is polite, Ruth, much like Amanda, is very straightforward. Even under the best circumstances, these two women would mix like oil and water, and add to the stress of a possible cyber or terrorist attack, their temporary living situation is extraordinarily uncomfortable, for them and the viewer. Bored Ruth seems to get her kicks out of watching Amanda squirm, and newcomer Myha’la is superb as she holds her own alongside Roberts.

Esmail, who adapted Rumaan Alam’s novel of the same name, does an excellent job building tension. After it becomes apparent that what is happening is more than a blackout, Amanda tries to shield Archie and Rose, but this becomes impossible, as strange noises, creepy deers hanging out in the backyard, and other things that cannot be explained away happen. Archie and Rose provide the comic relief. With no internet porn available, Archie sneaks photos of Ruth to masturbate to. Rose, meanwhile, is obsessed with watching the last episode of “Friends,” as the outage happens before she can find out if Ross and Rachel get back together.

There’s also some sexual tension in the mix. When the night falls, there is not much for the adults to do but drink. There’s a thaw between Amanda and G.H., and Roberts and Ali have a great moment when some unexpected chemistry heats up. However, it is never far from their thoughts that the world could be ending. In a disturbing twist, G.H., who handles the finances of some very wealthy individuals, reveals some possible insider information.

But the high point of the film comes after G.H. and Clay leave with Archie to seek medical help for the boy. G.H. takes them to the home of his survivalist neighbor, Danny (Kevin Bacon in a small but effective role), who G.H. is surprised to find to be less than hospitable. A standoff ensues, resulting in some moral questions being raised. Clay, who has been a relatively passive character up until this point, is forced to take action.

“Leave the World Behind” is a beautifully shot film. The luxury of the Scott home contrasts starkly with the mayhem happening in the outside world. Some of the scariest stuff in the film is what we do not see, as the Scotts and Sanfords can only imagine what the people in NYC and beyond are facing. “Leave the World Behind” is a solid, absorbing film, that is until it comes time to stick the landing. Esmail seems lost as to how to wrap the story, and the eventual ending is an amusing, albeit far-out, choice.

Leave the World Behind” releases Nov. 22 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 8 on Netflix.