Much of recent film has been obsessed with technology and its potential to usurp the existing order. Just this year we have seen Mission:Impossible Dead Reckoning and The Creator grapple with the dystopian consequences of an eternal march toward tech utopia. Sam Esmail is no stranger to the networks and servers that connect our modern existence, the director is, after all, the creator of Mr. Robot. With his first feature in nine years, Leave the World Behind, Esmail supposes that technology has long since hobbled society and that the bonds between people and nature have already been frayed.
Amanda (Julia Roberts) and Clay Sandford(Ethan Hawke) are fed up with the bustle of the world and take off to a Long Island mansion rental for the week. Almost immediately strange things begin to happen. A peaceful morning on the beach ends with Amanda, Clay and their kids sprinting away from an oil tanker running aground. Back at the house the Wi-Fi and televisions go out, an especially daunting challenge for 17 year old Archie (Charlie Evans) and 13 year old Rose (a delightfully funny Farrah Mackenzie) both of whom were promised unlimited screen time on vacation. Inconveniences for sure, but if the family’s biggest problem is their daughter being unable to watch the series finale of Friends, that seems manageable. Then comes a knock at the door in the middle of the night.
At the door are GH (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la) claiming that the mansion is theirs. A power outage in the city caused them to seek refuge at their vacation home despite having rented it out to the Sandfords. With the kids upstairs, the couple is naturally apprehensive. There is some ambiguity about whether the house is really theirs at first, much of the confusion though is rooted in racism on the part of Amanda. Keys that open a liquor cabinet in the kitchen mostly put that mystery to rest, but as the two families are faced with intensifying mysteries and challenges, the question of who can be trusted comes to the fore.
Leave the World Behind is a thriller before all else. Each decision made by Esmail is done to ramp up tension, confusion and disorient the audience. Mac Quayle’s score is simple yet foreboding, intrusive more than the average film. Tod Campbell’s camera lurches through each shot, swirling and jolting, giving his cinematography an almost feral quality. Even the script is slight, the conversation awkward and ideas direct. Both intriguingly and frustratingly vague, Esmail is more interested in tone than giving all the answers. Mileage on each of these elements will vary, taken individually they may come off as overbearing or underbaked but together the production added to the uncertainty that gives Leave the World Behind tension throughout.
That tension is the whole point. Trust has become conditional on google checks and communication simply dissolves without a Wi-Fi network to support it. Clay gets lost on a straight drive into town without his GPS, Rose communicates solely through the plots of television episodes. The tech apocalypse has been upon us for years and Esmail imagines its fallout as a disaster film. Mistrust and misinformation has been sown for decades now, so much that kids yearn for the sort of bohemian existence of a show like Friends that has never truly been reality.
None of these ideas are reinforced with much strength nor do they get any deeper than the shallow language of Esmail’s script. Slight as it may be, Leave the World Behind does do a great job of maintaining an uneasy tone. It manages to be thrilling and a little scary, using every bit of its cinematography to keep viewers on edge. Myha’la and Hawke are good but it’s Mahershala Ali who, as always, really grounds the story and electrifies every scene he’s in. The less we say about Julia Roberts the better.
As the mysteries finally unravel Leave the World Behind feels somehow incomplete. Films should not be asked to hold the viewers hand but Esmail posits a problem, maps out some consequences without proposing an answer or even a lack thereof. Society has been crippled and potentially felled by our inability to forge trust and connections and the clearest path described by this film seems to be to get rich enough to have a hideaway outside of major population centers.
How you feel about the craft will ultimately determine your feelings for Leave the World Behind. All elements of production pushing up the tension and muddling the tone worked for me. As confused and vague as the screenplay is, Esmail’s new film works as an engaging and unsettling disaster thriller. For that at least it is worth a look in its brief theatrical window at the end of November or at least on Netflix when it hits the platform December 8th.