When sitting down for Sam Esmail's Leave the World Behind, I had a feeling this could be something interesting. Netflix has a couple of these films every year, and I remembered Esmail from his previous work (in a very different genre, but regardless, it's obvious the man has talent). I wasn't too sure about the film's length and the premise didn't sound too original, but ten minutes into the movie I was already reassured that this was going to be the kind of film that appealed to my taste. Another good two hours later I knew I had found myself another personal favorite. It's a relatively divisive one though, so make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.
Most people know Sam Esmail as "the dude from Mr. Robot", I know Esmail as "the guy who did Comet". Comet is a very talkative, somewhat mysterious romance, a very different beast from this apocalyptic slow burn. That's not a bad thing, I'm sure not even that many people watched Comet, but it helps to set your expectations straight. Leave the World Behind in its turn is a critical take on contemporary society, without ever becoming too moralistic or overly preachy. A lot of stuff is brewing between the lines (though still in plain sight), while Esmail is vigilant that the film's genre roots aren't ever neglected.
This is one of those films where the audience knows just as much (or as little) as its main characters. You live the film through their eyes, and new information is only added sparingly. It is not so much about the mystery of the event (though a lot of the appeal lies exactly there), but more about how two families deal with the situation, and how they each approach the catastrophe in their unique way. It's as if Cloverfield was mixed with Patlabor 2. If that doesn't make too much sense (which it probably shouldn't, as they are very different films), don't worry, by the end of the film should have a good idea of what I'm talking about.
Amanda has booked her family a little impulse vacation. They leave the city behind for some fun and relaxation by the beach. They rented themselves a fancy villa, but on their first day disaster strikes. An oil tanker heads right into the beach, and everyone there is asked to go home for the day, while authorities examine the situation. To make things even weirder, that night a man and his daughter turn up on their doorstep. They say they are the owners of the villa, and a blackout in the city has forced them to head over their way. Amanda isn't keen on letting them in, but her husband caves and decides to let the two stay the night.
I remembered Esmail as a very visual director, and he didn't disappoint. The camera work is eye-catching, with a camera that is constantly on the move, twisting and turning through its settings, often literally through walls and windows (always slow and deliberate, mind, there's none of that frantic stuff here). It's the editing that stood out the most though, constantly cutting between different scenes and building up joint tension. It's not the most difficult trick to pull off, but I don't think I've ever seen it done so elaborately and minutely as here. Great cinematography is always a plus, and Leave the World Behind didn't disappoint.
The score is not quite as in-your-face as the cinematography, but it is used appropriately and in the end, it does manage to leave its mark. The music is more geared at adding mystery and building up tension. In that sense, it's not entirely unjustified that it remains more in the background, though it would've been nice if there had been one or two moments where it would've taken a more prominent position. I'm not going to complain too much though, while I don't remember any specific tunes, I certainly remember the vibe of the score, which is well above average already.
As for the performances, it's a bit of a mixed bunch. Mahershala Ali is the big standout here. His performance is mesmerizing and mysterious. Hawke and the kids are solid too. They may struggle a tad more with the dialogues, but they manage to pull off their characters, further adding to the mystery. Julia Roberts is by far the weakest link for me (there was a negative bias before I started watching, mind), even so, I must admit that her performance suited her character, which was a pretty smart move from Esmail. While Roberts bothered me, her character was supposed to be a little annoying, so that worked out fine in the end.
Leave the World Behind is a film that slowly and deliberately reveals its secrets, though keeps enough mystery alive so as to not spoil the fun afterward. It offers answers to most of the questions it poses, but not always head-on. The more that is revealed, the more layered and intriguing the mystery becomes, and it builds up right until the very end. And so I left the film with a good idea of what happened and what it was about, even though many of its details were still fuzzy and uncertain. It's a delicate balance and few manage to pull it off, but Esmail aced it.
Sam Esmail has a peculiar signature. One that mixes conceptual premises with evocative visuals and tight mood-building. For a film that moves relatively slowly and edges well past the 2-hour mark, I never felt like there was any excess material. Strong and fitting performances, superb editing, stylish cinematography, and a moody score all add to an intriguing film that was pretty meaty to begin with. I wish Esmail would put a stronger focus on feature films, as he seems to distinguish himself from his peers with deceptive ease. Leave the World Behind isn't for everyone, but it's no doubt one of the best Netflix productions of 2023.