MOVIE “Leave the World Behind”
WHERE Streaming on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Meet the Sandfords, a couple of well-heeled, white, creative types living in brownstone Brooklyn. Clay (Ethan Hawke) is a professor of media studies, Amanda (Julia Roberts) works in advertising. They have a sullen high schooler, Archie (Charlie Evans), and a “Friends”-obsessed middle-schooler, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie). What do the Sandfords do when the city gets them down? They pile into a car and drive to a rented home on the East End, of course.
This particular getaway, however, turns into deep isolation. The internet goes down. Cable, too. Phones, TV and even radios stop working. It isn’t clear what’s going on and — obviously — there’s no way to find out. A late-night knock at the door reveals a Black man in a tuxedo, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), and his fashionably dressed daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), who have just fled from a New York City crippled by power outages. The Scotts would like to stay the night because, well, they’re the owners of this sprawling modernist villa.
“This is your house?” Amanda asks. And with that impolitic comment begins a tale of two families thrown together during the apocalypse.
MY SAY As a novel, Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” had an intangibly haunting quality but still felt vivid — possibly because it arrived in the ghostly, peak-pandemic year 2020. In it, the all-consuming issues of race and class pretty much evaporate in the face of world destruction. Alam’s helpless characters can only fret and putter about the house, much as they did in normal times. Crucially, the apocalypse itself is never explained. After all, what does it matter?
Sam Esmail, the writer-director behind the film adaptation, seems to have read a different book. His version of “Leave the World Behind” isn’t a sober look at life and the meaning we ascribe to it. Instead, it feels more like “Mr. Robot,” the conspiracy-driven series Esmail created in 2015. It’s a paranoid thriller dotted with cryptic clues, cliffhangers and disaster sequences designed to grab and hold your attention at all costs.
One of the first glimmers of trouble is when the Sandfords’ beach outing is interrupted by an unmanned oil-tanker smashing spectacularly into the shore. So much for the slow build. This major catastrophe makes later, smaller warning signs (such as the garbled headlines on Amanda’s phone) much less shiver-inducing than they were in the book. To recapture that feeling, Esmail occasionally punctuates the dialogue with an ominous piano riff — a musical cue so unsubtle that you half-expect the actor to turn and stare into the camera. (The score is by Mac Quayle, also of “Mr. Robot.”)
The characters don’t talk much about their feelings; we mostly hear what they’re thinking. Is this a terrorist attack, a foreign invasion or what? G.H. tells an unconvincing story about weird stock-market blips; a local prepper named Danny (Kevin Bacon) blames the Koreans. “Or the Chinese,” he growls. “One of them.” The fine cast doesn’t get to dig very deep: We never learn why Rose distrusts “white people,” why Amanda claims to hate all people or how any of the parents feel about their children’s suddenly uncertain fates.
And a small point: Though this movie was filmed locally — at Old Westbury, Lloyd Neck and around the Riverhead area — its geography is distorted. Where in the Hamptons would you find a panoramic view of Manhattan across the water? (And what water would that be?)
The end of the world is always a valuable thought experiment; it makes us start asking important questions. Alam’s book wondered: “What if?” But Esmail’s movie mostly wants to know: “How come?”
BOTTOM LINE An end-of-days rumination that could have stared more deeply into the abyss.