‘Leave the World Behind’ weaves existential dread into a new type of apocalyptic drama

By Ben Konuch

“Haven’t you been picking up on what’s going on out there? We’ve all been deserted.”

If you were to have a conversation with me about who I thought were the greatest visionaries in film from the last ten years, you would probably get annoyed with how often I would bring up Sam Esmail. The director and showrunner of the television series “Mr. Robot,” which I have absolutely adored since its first season twist, Esmail has time and time again demonstrated his mastery of film. The stories he writes are complex and adult, and are filmed in such uniquely unsettling ways that you find yourself becoming more and more uncomfortable as a scene stretches on before you even understand why you should. Esmail’s work is marked by unique camera work, disconcerting closeups and off-center framing that all pairs with a unique style of slow-burn storytelling to weave together stories like you’ve never seen before.

That was why I was so excited when I heard that Sam Esmail was adapting “Leave the World Behind” into a film for Netflix based on the book of the same name by Rumaan Alam. While I admit that I haven’t read the book myself, a strong premise, a star-studded cast including Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke and a trust in Sam Esmail as a director was enough to get me to give the film a watch, and it did not disappoint.

“Leave the World Behind” follows a family of four, with Julia Roberts playing the mother Amanda and Ethan Hawke playing the father Clay, as they spontaneously get away from their busy life in New York City for a vacation at a beautiful rental home in Long Island. But everything is not what it seems, and when an oil tanker mysteriously crashes into their beach, the family starts to wonder if something strange is happening in the world around them. Everything changes, however, when a mysterious stranger and his daughter (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la) come to their house claiming to be the owners as an unexplained blackout cripples phones and all types of communication. As both families take shelter together, general distrust, suspicion and even racial preconceptions threaten to divide them against each other as they realize that everything in the world is suddenly not as it should be.

A house divided against itself cannot stand…

To give the disclaimer now, “Leave the World Behind” is not a film for everyone. There’s not a lot of action, despite a few shocking moments of violence, and most of the film is composed of dialogue and increasing tension that builds and builds until it reaches a unique climax that may not live up to your expectations. If you don’t enjoy dramas or get bored easily with slow-burns, “Leave the World Behind” might not be for you. But if you have the patience to invest in its characters and immerse yourself in the very grounded drama, then the film has a lot to say worth listening to.

“Leave the World Behind” is a masterfully crafted drama that more closely follows the formula and framing of a thriller than a drama. Esmail’s signature style is on full display here with fascinating camera work that makes not only the unexplainable events unsettling, but even the seemingly mundane conversations between characters. This is accomplished through camera techniques I have seldom seen before, such as the multiple times throughout the film that the camera doesn’t cut away to a new angle or pan out, but instead rotates in place to suddenly force the audience to look at the characters or scene from literally a different perspective. Long, lingering shots are preferred over quickly edited cuts of the camera, which doesn’t just increase your paranoia about what else in the shot you might be missing, but allows the fantastic acting to be on full display.

While it may be beautifully filmed, rest assured that “Leave the World Behind” is not all style and no substance. The story unfolds slowly and is forwarded more by long conversations than explosive set pieces, but the story that it weaves is one of division, suspicion and loss. How connected are we to one another? How many connections are real, how many are physical? When faced with impossible stress and the threat of danger, will we allow our distrust and divisions to destroy one another, or will we find another way? These are some of the questions that “Leave the World Behind” tackles, and I believe it succeeds in demonstrating them and answering them more often than it fails.

The film hasn’t been out for long, but has already found some controversy. Former president and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama served as executive producers for “Leave the World Behind,” and with their names attached many might be concerned about political messaging or agendas. A clip out of context has gone viral and has fueled outrage on one side of the political divide for seemingly being very heavy-handed in its approach to race, but the film actually handles these racial undertones and themes extremely well. 

The message of the film is not that division or distrust towards one race or people group is acceptable, but actually argues that racial division and distrust on both sides is just one of many ways that we’re quick to turn on one another. Ironically, the controversy surrounding the film has proven its point: Americans, despite our call for unity, can so easily turn on those who differ from us. And if we don’t recognize it and find a new way forward, it won’t take much to bring us crashing down.

I give “Leave the World Behind” a 9/10

“Leave the World Behind” is now streaming on Netflix

Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and the A&E assistant editor for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.

Images courtesy of Netflix

2 Replies to "‘Leave the World Behind’ weaves existential dread into a new type of apocalyptic drama"

  • comment-avatar
    Stephen Wilde January 7, 2024 (8:20 am)

    I thought the interpersonal relationships were reasonably fair from both white and black perspectives but the scene of conciliation between Amanda and GH was rather forced and implausible. I had a greater concern about the extreme negativity towards our current lifestyles and our relationship with the planet.
    That is currently very fashionable but in fact the world is better today than it has ever been for most people worldwide. We are likely to mess it up if attitudes like those in this film gain increasing traction.

  • comment-avatar
    paul May 10, 2024 (1:55 pm)

    Face it, the ending was just awful. No closure of any of the stories the author expects the audience to follow. He just pulls the floor out from under us in the end. Very lazy way to end such a complex plot.

    Mom’s conclusion about what the animals were doing was ridiculous.

    Kevin Bacon’s use of the gun was contrived. There are PLENTY of other ways to get across the selfishness when under such duress.

    I didn’t interpret a single thing as being about racism. I saw it being a showcase of human psychology when under extreme duress, with angry paranoia (mom), emotional stability (black daughter), the denial during depression (white daughter), the meek and humble family man (Hawke). Bacon was no racist or else Ali wouldn’t have called him his friend.

    I have no idea what message the Obamas thought that movie sent, but based on that ending, the message was lost on me.