Leave the World Behind is a Tense, Uneasy Thriller
Olivia Rutigliano on Sam Esmail’s Adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s National Book Award-Nominated Novel
When I saw Leave the World Behind, the new film written and directed by Sam Esmail and based on the National Book Award-nominated novel by Rumaan Alam, I kept flashing back to the days in my 7th grade English class when we learned about story arcs. I remember my teacher drawing a lopsided mountain on the chalkboard, elongating the slope of the left, ascending side as much as possible, stretching it as wide as he did tall. That part is the “rising action,” he told us, and it should take up most of the story. He also told us it was the hardest part to pull off, because it must slowly build tension and set up relationships and stewing conflict in the right measurements, all in preparation for a climax that should kick the characters into near free fall on their way to the denouement.
The best part of Leave the World Behind is its first two-thirds. That initial 66.66%, Acts One and Two, the rising action. The film takes its time developing, pricking curiosity and drawing suspense, cooking itself into a slow and foreboding thing. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t even know what’s happening; you are made to experience a level of uncertainty and powerlessness (presumably) like what the characters are experiencing. All you have are uncanny clues and a growing sense of apprehensiveness until Act Three finally hits.
The story is about a family from Brooklyn. Amanda (Julia Roberts) is in advertising, Clay (Ethan Hawke) is a professor. He says they live in Sunset Park, she calls it Park Slope. But Brooklyn barely matters, literally speaking, because they aren’t there for long—the story begins when they head to a beachy hamlet on Long Island for an impromptu vacation. They and their teenage kids, Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), are looking forward to escaping the grind for a little bit. They’ve rented a luxurious home through a rental site and spend their first few dreamy hours shopping for groceries, swimming in the pool, picnicking at the beach.
A few weird things happen that seem innocuous enough on their own: the wifi goes down, deer start appearing on the property, there’s an incident at the beach when a wayward oil tanker runs aground on the shore, but Amanda and Clay and their family are determined to enjoy their respite.
That first night, though, when it’s very late, there’s a knock at the door. Two people are on the front porch. They are well-dressed. They are Black. And they are, they explain, the owners of the home: G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la). It’s 2 am. Clay is stunned but more concerned about seeming a bit racist for assuming that they wouldn’t be the owners, assuming that they are not telling the truth. Amanda, highly suspicious, is less concerned with how she comes across. For a bit, Leave the World Behind unfolds like an interloper story, teases an alternate identity as a horror movie of some kind. But it’s not so cheap. Eventually, G.H. and Ruth manage to convince Amanda and Clay to sleep in the basement guest room. But while they all slumber, various clues begin to appear, suggesting that the real treachery afoot literally runs larger than the conflict within their microcosm, and at the same time, that their conflict might be emblematic of a kind of larger conflict on the horizon… for humanity, or at least America.
I won’t say more about the plot, except to reiterate that the buildup to what happens is more interesting than what does happen. This movie is almost all anticipation, stoked along by the personalities of these characters. The various intolerances and insecurities and entitlements brought into the mix by Clay and Amanda are responded to by hyper-patience and over-acquiescence on G.H.’s part and Gen Z-coded anger by Ruth. (By the way, in the book, Ruth is G.H.’s age-appropriate wife; here, she is his young adult daughter.)
Actually, while we’re mentioning the book, it’s worth noting another difference: the film is more cynical than the book about humans’ ultimate connections to one another, especially when factors like race and class are thrown into the picture. Amanda is the film’s clearest avatar of pessimism and distrust, but the other characters (all privileged, all feeling like they’re not privileged, whether that’s true or not) all embody these qualities in different chemistries.
The film takes its time developing, pricking curiosity and drawing suspense, cooking itself into a slow and foreboding thing.
I think we’re still too close to the coronavirus pandemic to fully appreciate the arresting terror of a story about a giant, apocalyptic-feeling event descending on a group of people; we remember such a thing too well. When Alaam’s novel coincidentally came out in 2020, its narrative twists and tones matched the circumstances in which we were all living, and so felt like a balm. By now, stories like this are not as captivating as they might have once been. At the same time, our potential jadedness to stories that tease paths to the “end of the world” might only prove the book and the film’s points further, regarding the negative consequences that humankind can wreak upon one another. The title of Leave the World Behind, at first blithely about ditching troubles for vacation and then about having to choose to look out for your own interests above those of others during a time of crisis, is the best encapsulation of the story’s implicit argument that humans secretly long for alienation and detachment—and even the destruction—of one another.
The film has a lot more to say about how people don’t actually care about each other than the book, and they might ultimately come to different perspectives on the subject. When it arrives at Act Three, the film moves quickly through various revelations of character motivation and ends rather abruptly in a way that feels laughably unsubtle and not particularly useful. The film would have done well to stir in the kind of patience that it cultivated so well during its rising action. Still, it is an effective, jarring film throughout.
The first two acts build their creepy ominousness in part due to the surreality of Esmail’s camera, which floats through walls, up and down structures, flips upside down and swirls. These aren’t your parents’ crane shots; these cameras are drones but might as well be flying saucers for their refusal to abide by conventions of gravity and orientation.
When the camera sits still (or, really, zooms in and out ever so slowly), it captures impressive, expressive monologues. Mahershala Ali is the film’s standout, at one point in Act Two giving a “haunting soliloquy” that gives the buildup a sense of great stability and direction. But his best acting is done with his eyes; I don’t know how, but he summons genuine fear inside them. I left the movie with his gaze imprinted in my memory.
The film releases in theaters right before Thanksgiving (a time famous for traveling and gathering in houses with other people), before coming to Netflix on December 8th. I’d see it in theaters if you can, to experience the giant, sweeping shots. Or, you know, you can see it a few weeks later, sitting on your couch, holed up with your dinner, hiding under a blanket. Come to think of it, it might be more effective that way.