Sam Esmail is definitely a creator worth following. His futuristic conspiracy thriller Mr. Robot is enthralling, and he’s been involved with other intriguing shows like Homecoming and The Resort. His second full-length feature, Netflix’s Leave the World Behind (2023), is another auteur project full of signature elements: rampant paranoia, slow-burn atmosphere, striking camera work, and strident political commentary. Like Mr. Robot, there are over-reaches, but overall it’s a gripping construct.
The nightmare begins when the Sandford family—Amanda (Julia Roberts), Clay (Ethan Hawke), and their kids Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie)—flee their Brooklyn lives for a spontaneous vacation on Long Island. Enticed by the opportunity to “leave the world behind,” Amanda remotely rents a posh rental house and packs up the family, looking forward to getting away from people. Amanda’s inner misanthrope is triggered when the idyllic getaway is interrupted by the arrival of G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la). G.H. is the owner of the house, and he and Ruth have returned to it because a blackout has made it difficult to reach their New York City apartment. Relaxed Clay takes the awkward intrusion in stride, but Amanda is churlish, suspecting the visitors aren’t who they say they are. Before long, though, mysterious developments in the wider world make their interpersonal conflicts the least of their problems.
Leave the World Behind is, to say the least, totally my jam, a one-of-a-kind of mash-up of two wheelhouse genres as it executes conspiracy thriller tropes in the context of an end-of-the-world disaster film. But it’s all ornately designed within Esmail’s singular, ominous aesthetic, allowing the actors to shine and the suspense to mount. The players are perfectly cast and uniformly excellent, and frequent Esmail collaborator Mac Quayle provides a first-rate score that brilliantly complements the taut scenario. Yes, it does possess a handful of Esmail’s stylistic excesses: dizzying pans and angles, over-extended sequences that occasionally try the patience, selectively doled out information. There also isn’t much subtlety to the political content, which seeps out of the subtext straight into the dialogue. For me, though, these were more distractions than flaws. It’s otherwise wholly absorbing, and an astute diagnosis of the grim state of things. That greater commentary plays out sharply in microcosm, the isolated environment serving as a reflection of the troubled zeitgeist. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of noodles, and it makes a few decisions that don’t quite land, but on points it’s a stirring, effective piece that fits in nicely with Esmail’s intense body of work.