Review: Conspiracy Theories, Trust Issues Abound in Leave the World Behind, Starring Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahersahala Ali

I’m guessing that the societal subtext of author Rumaan Alam’s National Book Award-nominated novel Leave the World Behind is a bit more subtle and sinister than the current adaptation by writer/director Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot), but that doesn’t mean that what Esmail brings to the table isn’t compelling. In the story, Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke play New York City-based husband and wife Amanda and Clay, who rent a luxury home just outside of the city to take a little time off from the hustle and bustle to be with each other and their kids, Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie).

The home is spacious and cozy, and everyone takes to the comforts of isolation (and a pool) pretty quickly. But as night falls, two people show up at the door, G.H. (Mahershala Ali), who claims to be the property owner, and his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la). The two come with a story about a citywide blackout that left them nervous enough about remaining on the island that they fled back to their home, hoping the renters would let them stay in the guest room downstairs, at least for the night until the situation in the city was a bit clearer. Tinged with not-too-concealed racist thoughts, Amanda has a tough time believing this man owns a home like this one, despite clearly knowing the layout and having keys to some of the locked rooms and cabinets within. Her husband is clearly ashamed of her behavior, but as the magnitude of the issues in the city come into focus, trust becomes both increasingly difficult to come by for anyone while also becoming absolutely necessary to move forward. The push and pull of these two absolutes, especially within Amanda, is one of the most fascinating and believable elements of the movie.

Without getting into too much detail (the reveals and misdirections are a big part of the fun), the initial issue in the city is a cyber attack that seems to have knocked out cell phone and internet service, including in the house. There are also blasts of unspeakably loud noises from time to time, the migratory patterns of most of the wildlife in the area seem thrown off, and the occasional emergency sirens can be heard in the distance, indicating what, nobody really knows. In fact, not knowing much of anything is a key component to Leaving the World Behind. Questions are meant to be unanswered, because that sparks chaos. Because G.H.’s work puts him in the sphere of powerful people, he’s gotten clues about what’s going on, as people who are his clients were likely given some level of advance warning. But everything within this story is speculation, as if every conspiracy theory gets a shot in the ring at some point, including ones from those who probably lived in a world of conspiracy theories before all of this started.

Kevin Bacon shows up late in the movie as G.H.’s survivalist neighbor and a contractor who worked on his home, who is fully stocked with essentials as well as a few ideas about what’s going on and who’s doing it. Twenty-four hours earlier, they would have looked at him as a crackpot; today, his theories are as valid as anyone else’s. Leaving the World Behind does feature a few lighter moments, including an unexpected dance number between Roberts and Ali, but mostly the objective is to slowly ratchet up the fear, tension, and uncertainty.

One recurring plot point is Rose binge-watching the entire series of Friends, and having the internet go out just as she’s about to watch the very last episode. As the film goes on, she becomes increasingly aware that she may never see it and grows despondent over the realization. The final moments include a ray of hope for some as other things may be growing increasingly apocalyptic; it’s a wild note to end on, but it’s certainly better than trying to make it feel like things will be all right in the end for everyone. Not everything in the film works, but a great deal of it does, and it certainly dares to go darker than most films do about the potential collapse of civilization.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.