Leave the World Behind (2023) Review

Streaming Leave the World Behind, the new Netflix movie adapted from Rumaan Alam’s acclaimed 2020 novel of the same name, reminds me of the good old days when I used to rent a VHS judging by the cover art. The kind that intrigued me with familiar names and an attention-grabbing tagline and image. Here, we have an all-star cast including Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali and Ethan Hawke, a tagline which reads “There’s no going back to normal“, and a peculiar but interesting image of a deer standing in the middle of the road with a fleet of white cars seen from a distance. This is one of those moments, where I’m looking forward to a movie without doing prior research like I’m always used to for a review purpose.

Written and directed by Sam Esmail of TV’s Mr Robot fame, the movie doesn’t waste time establishing the foreboding sense of dread with Mac Quayle’s ominous score. Of course, everything seems ordinary at first from the Sandford family’s perspective. We first learn Amanda (Julia Roberts) made a swift decision one morning to go for a staycation after renting a house in Long Island. Her husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke) isn’t aware of it but eventually goes along with her impromptu plan, taking their kids including younger daughter Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and teenage son Archie (Charlie Evans).

The journey to the rented Long Island house goes well as planned. The place is quiet and beautiful and most of all, it’s away from the concrete jungle that Amanda has been looking forward to. That is until they decide to spend a day lounging on the beach. An unusual moment happens — something to do with an oil tanker on the sea that I can’t help but reminds me of Speed 2: Cruise Control.

A scene from Netflix's "Leave the World Behind" (2023)

But that’s just the beginning. What follows next looks as if Esmail slips into a home invasion thriller-like territory. A man and a younger woman (Mahershala Ali, Myha’la) show up at the front door of Sandfords’ rented house. They introduce themselves as G.H. Scott and Ruth Scott and both of them are father and daughter. G.H. claims he’s the owner of the house and explains the reason they ended up here in the middle of the night. Amanda is sceptical but Clay doesn’t mind helping them. The introduction of Mahershala Ali and Myha’la somehow gives me the vibes of the late Sidney Poitier-starred Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

As it turns out, there are bigger problems than the presence of G.H. and Ruth. Problems that echo the look and feel of M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, complete with what-the-heck-is-going-on imagery. A TV broadcasting the national emergency alert on all channels, a herd of deer showing up in the backyard, a mysterious plane crash and more. It keeps me intrigued as the mystery keeps piling up while Esmail does an excellent job of tapping on the sheer eerieness of fear and uncertainty. My favourite moment of the movie has to be the engrossing scene of the self-driving Tesla cars.

The cast is great. Julia Roberts delivers an engaging performance as an uptight and cynical Amanda while Ethan Hawke strikes a nice contrast as Amanda’s more laidback husband, Clay. As for the rest, notably Mahershala Ali and Myha’la as well as Kevin Bacon’s memorable cameo appearance round up the stellar cast.

Leave the World Behind is not without its flaws as the mammoth 140-minute length tends to feel like it’s stretching too long for its own good. Then comes the polarising third act, which makes me feel like it’s missing a piece of a puzzle. And for the record, I didn’t read the novel so I’m just judging the movie on its own merits. Let’s just say it’s ambiguous but it also feels abrupt. Still, despite some of the shortcomings, the movie remains an ambitious and well-acted psychological thriller with apocalyptic tones.

Leave the World Behind is currently streaming on Netflix.