A deluxe rental turns into a house of horror in the thriller, on Netflix Dec. 8
Based on Rumaan Alam's bestseller, Leave the World Behind is an elliptical but suspenseful film that steadily plots its course from tiny aggressions to colossal ones.
We can start with the smaller examples.
While the sun is just starting its workday above Brooklyn, Amanda (Julia Roberts) wakes up her husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke), and surprises him with the treat she has in store for their weekend: She’s rented what looks like a gorgeous place out of town. Start packing!
Amanda, who works in advertising and has a more cynical temperament than Clay — he's a laid-back academic — can’t wait to escape to a place that promises luxurious privacy. "I f---ing hate people," she says.
The fact that it's Roberts who makes this pronouncement, more or less straight into the camera, adds a certain pungent element of surprise.
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Amanda, Clay and their two kids, Archie and Rose (Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie), drive out to Long Island. The house turns out to be airy and immaculate, as enviably perfect as one of those places Bravo housewives descend on in the summers or the architectural beauty overtaken by misery in 2019’s Parasite.
But misery will be moving in here, too, teaching Amanda a bitter truth: Real estate porn counts for diddly-squat when civilization collapses.
The first intimation that the family isn’t in paradise comes while they’re all sunning themselves at the beach: A tanker makes a slow, silent and very sinister approach to the shoreline, looming larger and larger, until it plows straight into the sand, like the Titanic hungering to make contact with an iceberg. (This and other scenes of violently encroaching disaster manage to feel impressively matter-of-fact yet eerie.)
The house Wi-Fi goes on the blink, too, frustrating Rose to no end: She’d nearly finished bingeing Friends. The one episode remaining out of her reach is the finale — otherwise known as "The Last One." This is a clever if overly calculated touch. The irony would be less neat if she wanted to watch Downton Abbey.
Amanda seems willing, maybe even eager, to shrug off these disruptions, but then a Black stranger named G.H. (Mahershala Ali) arrives at the house with his daughter (Myha’la Herrold), Ruth.
He asks to stay — after all, he owns the place, he says, and some mysterious disruption has frightened them against returning to Manhattan. Amanda, who knows only that she rented from someone online, is prickly, rude and suspicious. It’s possible she’s racist. Ruth certainly thinks so.
But then, as other things go wrong — planes fall from the sky, driverless Teslas crash on the highway, confused flamingos drop down into the heated backyard pool — Amanda comes to trust G.H.
In other words, Roberts unveils her megawatt smile, almost on queue. That smile, more imperishably valuable than any crypto-currency, lets us know that some human decency has found its way into this increasingly panicked landscape.
Meanwhile, a deafening blast of noise keeps rending the air and forcing everyone to fold up like tulips at sunset. And the local deer are massing into what appears to be a flash mob. That can't be good....
Leave the World Behind is a polished, subtle tale of terror (in many forms), although the sense of an unstated, mysterious connection between all these malevolences — from Amanda’s opening "f–-- you" to the final revelation of the cataclysm's likely cause — doesn’t have the resonance it ought to.
You should be trying to puzzle out what it all can possibly mean. But after awhile you stop asking and just wait for the next expertly administered jolt.
The tension is undeniable, and strong enough to snap a pencil. Once the Wi-Fi goes, you’ll wish you still had one of those.
Leave the World Behind is in select theaters Wednesday, then on Netflix Dec. 8.
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