Movie Review: ‘Leave the World Behind’ is a terrific blend of thriller, disaster and satire

December 5, 2023  -Imagine that it’s close to midnight and there’s a knock at the door of your luxurious weekend rental home. A man is standing there, calmly apologizing. He says it’s his home and that he and his daughter need your help. He’s also dressed immaculately in a tux.

What would you do?

Did the tux make a difference? Would the man’s race?

That early scene is when Netflix’s “Leave the World Behind” really kicks into gear and never slackens as this terrific, apocalyptic, psychological thriller races to its conclusion, exploring race, affluence and responsibility along the way.

The luxurious home becomes a castle of sorts as the outside world crumbles. The man who says he’s the owner tries to explain why he’s turned up. “Under the circumstances, we thought you’d understand,” he says. But understanding is in short supply here

This image released by Netflix shows Myha'la Herrold as Ruth and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Leave the World Behind." (Netflix via AP)
Myha’la and Mahershala Ali (Netflix via AP)
This image released by Netflix shows Charlie Evans, left, and Farrah Mackenzie in a scene from "Leave the World Behind." (Netflix via AP)
Adapted from Rumaan Alam’s acclaimed novel, the movie is set against an end-of-days disaster in which technology — Wi-Fi, TV, phones, internet — has gone silent due to a cyberattack and there’s been a massive blackout.

Well-to-do Amanda (a tart Julia Roberts) and her Atlantic magazine-quoting husband Clay (a hangdog Ethan Hawke) must work with the even-more-well-off G.H. (a calmly sophisticated Mahershala Ali) and his savvy daughter Ruth, (a superb Myha’la). The racial divide easily swamps their joint class affiliation.

Also along for the disaster are Amanda and Clay’s children, a “Friends”-obsessed daughter (a soulful Farrah Mackenzie, who even wears her hair in a “Rachel” ‘do) and her older, slightly bratty 16-year-old brother (a brooding Charlie Evans).

It’s a story brilliantly adapted and directed by Sam Esmail, showrunner of “Mr. Robot,” who has made “Leave the World Behind” into a homage of Alfred Hitchcock, complete with the image of a man trying to outrun a crashing plane and using the master’s discordant loud music. Esmail, who manages to make a group of deer appear sinister, even makes a Hitchcockian cameo as a corpse on a beach.

The director paces the deepening dread flawlessly and there are visual delights throughout, like when the family starts off on their adventure with their car exiting at “Point Comfort.” The camera often swirls and soars through glass cracks or holes in roofs like an uneasy bird, or parks itself at strange angles. This image released by Netflix shows Julia Roberts, from left, Ethan Hawke, Myha'la Herrold, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Leave the World Behind." (Netflix via AP)

The mysterious catastrophe — ships beach themselves, driverless cars crash like lemmings — sloughs away any pretense at civility, leaving the adults and children to turn on each other. Amanda, in particular, reveals a dark side and her husband — before the disaster, a can’t-we-all-get-along bro — abandons a hysterical survivor by the side of the road. Community is shattered, guns come out and protect-at-all-costs is the motto of the day.

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