Movie review: Leave the World Behind captures a very creepy Zeitgeist

Movie review: Leave the World Behind

Sam Esmail serves up a sophisticated psychological thriller that nods to Cold War convention while conjuring the biggest threat of the twenty-first century: A world where money governs morality, friendships are subject to outside influence, and even your neighbour can’t be trusted as an ally.

Leave the World Behind

4/5

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Starring: Julia Roberts, Mahershala Ali, Ethan Hawke, Kevin Bacon

Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

Debuts on Netflix December 8, 2023

By Katherine Monk 

“We have to start to see this as it is: There is no going back to normal.” It’s a line uttered by Mahershala Ali’s character in the new Netflix release, Leave the World behind, and more than any scrap of dialogue delivered in the year 2023, it captures the Zeitgeist with such blunt accuracy, it’s terrifying.

Granted, the whole movie is designed to be creepy. But it’s the brand of terror that director Esmail exploits that speaks directly to the current moment. Leave the World Behind is what you’d call a psychological thriller, but there is no masked villain menacing innocents with a power tool, serrated blade or a modified firearm.

The biggest threat in this sophisticated thriller is the world we humans crafted together. The world where money governs morality, friendships are subject to outside influence, and even your neighbour can’t be trusted as an ally.

It’s a world Julia Roberts’s character observes in the opening scene from the bedroom window of her Manhattan abode. She’s explaining to her husband (Ethan Hawke) why she booked an AirBnB out of the blue:

“When I couldn’t fall back asleep this morning, I came over here to watch the sunrise and saw all these people starting their day with such tenacity, such verve, all in an effort to make something of themselves, to make something of our world. I felt so lucky to be a part of that,” she says, with seeming sincerity. “But then I remembered what the world is actually like and I came to a more accurate realization: I fucking hate people.”

Snap! Watching America’s Sweetheart articulate a profound sense of misanthropy feels like a bracing slap to the face, which is exactly why Esmail’s movie is so successful. In that opening sequence, he not only taps into the current cycle of sleepless angst, he accesses the secret chamber of squelched optimism and existential doubt that permeates our current, post-COVID culture.

Most importantly, the messenger for these nihilist thoughts is the All-American celebrity force of Julia Roberts — someone who is supposed to embody all the good stuff, like apple pie and maternal sacrifice. Or, thanks to the stubborn stain of Pretty Woman, the possibility of Christian redemption as the hooker with the heart of gold saved by a handsome millionaire.

Esmail offers us a world turned upside down from the moment it begins, but he doesn’t make it obvious. He waits for us to catch up to the characters as they navigate an entirely changed world from the surreal comfort of an isolated mansion outside the city.

Plotwise, Roberts and Hawke rent a gorgeous getaway with their two teenaged kids in the hopes of some family bonding. But just as soon as they settle into the marquee AirBnB, a stranger appears at the door, informing them it’s his house.

He tells them something strange is happening in the city so he fled with his daughter. Greeted with leers and a palpable sense of distrust, the stranger tries to assure the renters he really is entitled to be there. That he really is who is says he is. But the director doesn’t want us to be convinced, leaving open doors of doubt, and slowly leading us down the hallway of social disintegration.

By keeping us guessing as to the real motives behind every character’s actions, and the real causes behind the national emergency unfolding outside the door, the viewer is left in narrative limbo. And what better symbol of our current moment than this upending of narrative convention? He offers no omniscient comforts, no movie star cues, no Hollywood signposts pointing to formulaic plots and the predictable psychological safety that comes along with them. This time, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. Normal no longer exists.

It’s a brave and refreshing take on human relationships in the post-pandemic, post-Trump, post-truth era.

Peeling back the layers of polished marble affluence and financial privilege, Esmail gets past our collective denial and dissects how the social contract atrophied through increasing inequity, justified by the immoral force of free markets. The bottom line on his particular spreadsheet is a universal loss of faith in our fellow man.

By keeping us guessing as to the real motives behind every character’s actions, and the real causes behind the national emergency unfolding outside the door, the viewer is left in narrative limbo. And what better symbol of our current moment than this upending of narrative convention? He offers no omniscient comforts, no movie star cues, no Hollywood signposts pointing to formulaic plots and the predictable psychological safety that comes along with them. This time, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. Normal no longer exists.

Trust no one. Certainly, Julia Roberts’s character doesn’t, and it’s a point the actor articulates in one of the best soliloquies of her career as she explains to the stranger’s daughter why she’s so angry all the time.

“Every day. All day, my job — my whole job — is to understand people well enough so I know how to lie to them so I can sell them things they don’t really want. And when you study people like that, when you really see the way they treat each other, well…. you’re no dummy. You see what they do. And they do it without even thinking about it. Fuck. I did it to you and your dad and I don’t even really know why.

“We fuck each other over, all the time, without even realizing it. We fuck every living thing on this planet over and think it will be fine because we use paper straws and order the free range chicken. And the sick thing is, I think deep down, we know we aren’t fooling anyone. I think we know we are living a lie. An agreed upon mass delusion to help us ignore, and keep ignoring, how awful we really are.”

Nothing is more disturbing, more threatening, than words of truth. But in his pressing desire to pull us from the tarry pits of denial, and grapple the increasing distrust that threatens to extinguish humanity, Esmail also offers a genuine thread of hope by proving we have the capacity to overcome our mutual fear. He affirms the power of words, music, art and individual actions.

In pulling down the veil of fake contentment encouraged by social media, and exposing the unspoken racism, classism and institutional prejudices that silently define American life, Esmail’s film is a testament to the power of creative expression. Yes, Leave the World Behind is disturbing. It will probably sit with you long after the credits roll, but because it is so well done, so thoughtful in tone, and so prescient in its plot points, it’s also a beautiful reminder that we’re all we’ve got. Moreover, we can save each other.

THE EX-PRESS, December 8, 2023

@katherinemonk

-30-

Review: Leave the World Behind

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4 (5 Votes)

Summary

4Score

By keeping us guessing as to the real motives behind every character’s actions, and the real causes behind the national emergency unfolding outside the door, the viewer is left in narrative limbo. And what better symbol of our current moment than this upending of narrative convention? Writer-director Sam Esmail offers no omniscient comforts, no movie star cues, no Hollywood signposts pointing to formulaic plots and the predictable psychological safety that comes along with them. This time, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. Normal no longer exists. --Katherine Monk

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