Home CULTURE Julia Roberts stars in a ‘timely’ and ‘chilling’ thriller

Julia Roberts stars in a ‘timely’ and ‘chilling’ thriller

by Ohio Digital News

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By Caryn JamesFeatures correspondent

Netflix Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myha'la Herrold in Netflix film Leave the Wolrd BehindNetflix
(Credit: Netflix)

Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke are convincing in the suspenseful, entertaining Netflix film, Leave the World Behind, an adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel, writes Caryn James.

How will the world end? Back in 1920 the poet Robert Frost suggested fire or ice. How quaint. The possibilities hovering over Sam Esmail’s suspenseful, apocalyptic Leave the World Behind are cyberattacks, rogue AI, nuclear annihilation and climate change, but also plain old-fashioned human evil. The options sound grim, yet this suspenseful drama makes them entertaining. Esmail’s adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel adds a playful Hitchcockian spin and the starry cast of Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali to create a psychological thriller about family, technology and life in the 21st Century.

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Roberts and Hawke are Amanda and Clay Sandford, a middle-class couple living in a Brooklyn apartment with their 16-year-old son, 13-year-old daughter, and a big crack on their bedroom wall. In Roberts’s wry delivery, Amanda announces that she hates people in general, and that she has rented a luxurious house surrounded by woods on Long Island for a weekend family escape. The trees there are such bright green that the film has a slightly hyperreal aura from the start.

Deep into their first night away, there is an ominous knock on the door. GH (Ali) arrives with his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la Herrold, who played Harper in Industry), explains that he owns the house, that New York City is experiencing a major power outage, and that they would like to stay the night.

The characters’ fears are totally relatable, playing off the anxious feeling of being cut off from communication

Although Roberts is saddled with too many clunky lines about the bleakness of human nature, she makes them work and is strongly convincing as the cynical, distrustful member of the family. She subtly adds a layer of unconscious racial bias when she says to GH “This is your house?” Amanda would be horrified at the conscious idea that this black man, however well dressed and coming back from the opera, couldn’t own this beautifully designed rich person’s home. But suddenly both the wi-fi and phone service are out, so she can’t check his identity. Hawke easily slides into his character, a professor. More trusting than his wife, he convinces her to let the unexpected guests stay. 

One of Esmail’s inspired changes was to make Ruth, who was George’s wife in the novel, his daughter, a young woman in her 20s. She picks up on racial biases and is instantly hostile to Amanda, adding tension to the story. Amanda thinks Ruth is a rude, entitled example of her generation, and she’s not entirely wrong. Esmail, foregrounding suspense rather than social messages, makes race and class minor undercurrents, which vanish as the families shelter together amidst unknown threats. GH, a financial planner, has heard rumours from a powerful client that something might be amiss in the future. In Ali’s finely-balanced performance, GH is worried, but not yet convinced that an apocalypse is heading their way.

George and Ruth’s arrival is the second odd event the Sandfords experienced that day, though. At the beach, they had to flee a fast-moving oil tanker that grounded there, reportedly because of faulty navigation systems. Several well-placed action scenes are also Esmail’s additions. He created the series Mr Robot, with Rami Malik as a brilliant, mysterious hacker, and directed Roberts in Homecoming’s first season, as a social worker who uncovers a scheme to destroy military veterans’ memories. Blending technology, conspiracies and psychological suspense is what he does, and here he uses all those elements to bring a quite literary novel to life on screen.

Leave the World Behind

Cast: Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Mahershala Ali, Myha’la Herrold

Release date: 22 November in the US; on Netflix from 8 December

Many of the characters’ fears are totally relatable, playing off the anxious feeling of being cut off from communication. Without neighbours nearby, they have no idea if the blackout is anything worse than a power-grid failure. But the ominous possibilities quickly pile up. The Sandfords’ daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie, who gives her a haunted look in her eyes) is obsessed with watching Friends, a show that ended before she was born. With her iPad not working, she walks outside, and sees a deer in the backyard. Then dozens more eerily appear, almost translucent. Is she hallucinating or has nature gone awry too? Hitchcock’s The Birds echoes more than once in the film. So does North by Northwest, in an action scene with Ali in the Cary Grant role. Those touches make the film teasing, and prevent it from landing as a depressing real-life threat.  

The creepiest episodes are too spoilery to reveal. There has rarely been a traffic jam with such a harrowing cause, another of Esmail’s additions. Conspiracy theories hover over the story too. In a small role, Kevin Bacon plays a survivalist whose crackpot paranoia becomes hard to dismiss.

Leave the World Behind is not especially original; there are too many other apocalyptic movies around for that. But the film, which has Barack and Michelle Obama among its executive producers, is especially timely. Leaflets dropped from a drone saying “Death to America”, either a hoax or a warning, bring to mind the recent resurfacing and deletion of a message from Osama bin-Laden on TikTok. Rose’s attachment to Friends, the most meaningful connection in her life, resonates with the visceral response of so many fans to Matthew Perry’s death last month. Esmail could not have foreseen those connections, but they speak to how attuned to the moment he has made this chilling yet enjoyable film.

★★★★☆

Leave the World Behind is released in the US on 22 November, and on Netflix on 8 December.

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