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Leave the World Behind

Released 2023. Director: Sam Esmail

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND IMAGINES WHAT IT'S LIKE if America was invaded by initiating a technology meltdown. Sam Esmail’s adaptation of the novel by Rumaan Alam is a puzzling thriller of escalating anxiety seen through the eyes of two families sheltering uneasily under the same roof. Through these characters the movie contemplates privilege, class, race and their attitudes to survival at a time of great uncertainty.

New Yorkers Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay (Ethan Hawke) take their kids Archie and Rose on a spontaneous getaway to Long Island. Their weekend escape gets off to an ominous start when an oil tanker sails straight up and grounds itself on the very beachfront. It gets worse from there.

Back in the luxurious house they rented, they lose phone connection, TV reception and wi-fi. No Internet, no social media, no e-mails, no messages, it most certainly is the end of the world. And then two visitors turn up in the night claiming they own the property.

The man George and his daughter Ruth have come to seek shelter because of a widespread blackout in the city. In return George offers a thousand dollars in refund. While Clay is accommodating and gives them the benefit of doubt, Amanda is highly suspicious and doesn’t even pretend to be the least bit courteous. Can you trust a stranger at a time when you have no idea what’s going on?

In the next couple of days the two families will find out that they could never again return to the world they’ve left behind, or maybe they’re the ones left behind. We never really get a full understanding of the truth of the situation at any moment. The series of discovery is cryptic and unsettling, including a couple of disaster scenes. In this regard Esmail does a superb job in keeping the audiences on tenterhooks.

Emergency broadcast messages that flash momentarily on TV warn of a crisis of some kind. Planes falling out of the sky and dead bodies strewn across the beach could indicate terrorism. GPS and satellite phones failing means a communication crash that goes beyond the Internet and power grid. When Amanda and Clay try to make a run for it by driving their family back to the city, they are met by a cavalcade of self-driving Tesla crashing into each other kamikaze style to block anyone from going anywhere.

Humans are not the only ones inconvenienced. Families of deer wander into the backyard standing still, just staring and boding of approaching cataclysm. A flock of flamingos descend on the swimming pool. Their migration patterns have been disrupted and the animals are not behaving normally.

Suspense permeates the movie from start to finish as a creeping sense of existential jitters builds to its climax. Heightening the mystery and unease is the awareness of an apocalypse on the rise, made obvious with Esmail’s love for skewed camera angles coupled with Mac Quayle’s ominous score. There’s even a nod to Hitchcock when Clay finds himself caught up in the crop-dusting scene in North By Northwest.

Tension between the families, especially between Amanda and, well, everybody else, adds ugliness to the slowly worsening situation. Pointed interactions with loaded subtext add to the unfolding nightmare.

Mahershala Ali gives George a depth of kindness in an impossible and unprecedented situation despite his silent grief of knowing his wife is most likely dead mid-flight coming home. Julia Roberts makes Amanda a controller who doesn’t care about niceties. Ethan Hawke’s chill middle-age dad who tries to be a peacemaker is a familiar persona for the actor. As a gun-wielding neighbour who refuses to give up some desperately needed medication, a menacing Kevin Bacon speaks of a lawless, self-preserving anarchy to come.

These are rich, privileged, educated people whose human nature are being severely tested. Whoever the real enemy is, they have unleashed their greatest weapon: mutual distrust. The “Death to America” propaganda leaflets raining from the sky suggest the presence of a foreign power, or maybe a group of nations, or maybe it’s a red herring by a domestic foe. Or perhaps it’s your friends, your neighbours, as panic and suspicion turn people against one another with two options: cooperate or cannibalize.

Leave the World Behind doesn’t need to look far in envisioning a doomsday scenario. Of all the movies about how the world ends, this one feels the most real. A scary possibility that you could picture as a certainty. Any moment now.

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