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Leave the World Behind

Year: 2023
Production Co: Esmail Corp
Studio: Netflix
Director: Sam Esmail
Writer: Sam Esmail
Cast: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myha'la, Kevin Bacon

Like many Netflix viewers I was taken in by the arresting disaster movie visual, a huge container ship coming toward the shore before panicked swimmers realise it's not stopping, running and screaming as it plows into the sand like a spaceship landing.

Why it does so – along with most other occurrences in the movie – is the central mystery, and I found myself quite gripped the entire way through as co-writer/director Sam Esmail (Mr Robot) piled one cue after another on top of the mystery he's inviting you to unfold.

Either the set pieces and various talismans of the mystery (the line of stalled Teslas, the weird behaviour by the deer, the tornado of bits of red paper, etc) were intriguing enough on their own or the tone of slowly building menace was handled well enough without me really registering, but my interest was piqued from early on and kept building.

Did the explanation of what was going on really warrant both the expertly handled tone of escalating danger and my growing investment in the story? No. Esmail's back catalogue should give you a clue about the real danger the characters are facing. But even though it didn't really warrant the Twilight Zone-level mystery of the rest of the movie, it's hard to take away from how effectively it drags you in until that point.

New Yorker Amanda (Julia Roberts) wakes her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) by telling him she's booked an Airbnb on Long Island on a whim so the two of them and their late teen son Archie and preteen daughter Rose can get away.

The marriage is apparently a bit flaky, Amanda suffering some sort of existential crisis, but the go-with-the-flow Clay happily agrees and the family finds themselves in a welcoming mansion in an idyllic wooded setting, looking forward to their weekend.

But the middle of the night brings a baleful knock at the door. The sophisticated, polite GH (Mahershala Ali) and his slightly acerbic daughter Ruth (Myha'la) say it's their house, and would Clay and Amanda mind if they sleep there because of some disaster that's befallen the city?

Amanda doesn't like it one bit – the TV and phones have already gone out so something's apparently wrong Somewhere – but Clay talks her into it, and the family and their enigmatic guests/hosts fall into an uneasy truce over the next few days as they try to work out what's happening in the world outside.

Because it's not just the beached ship. The TV show only an alert and a warning to stay indoors. Local deer come to the yard in throngs to stare at them all (what that has to do with the answer to the riddle is never explained). When GH goes down to the shoreline to see what he can find, bodies and aircraft wreckage are strewn everywhere – with another plane falling from the sky right in front of him that he barely escapes.

Ruth worries in hushed tones to her father about whether their mother/wife is still alive amid whatever's gone on despite his continued assurances. Clay goes off to find the general store to see if he can find a newspaper and gets lost, coming across a tornado emerging from a clear blue sky made of slips of paper that apparently contain warnings of a terrorist attack from an Arabic nation.

Esmail goes a little bit Fassbinder here and there, framing shots that are inventive but border on distracting in his pursuit to present a world gone askew where you wonder what the danger is right along with the characters, but there are some striking images (the column of stalled cars, the pool full of flamingos) that heighten the mystery effectively.

The performances, script, design and cinematography are all great, which makes the climax even more disappointing – despite how big and world beating it is, it turns out to be something so prosaic the addition of one fascinating MacGuffin after another that's led you there isn't really justified.

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