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‘Leave the World Behind’ Is a Terrific Blend of Thriller, Disaster and Satire

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Inside a house, a middle-aged Black man stands next to a Black teenage girl. Standing slightly before them is a white woman with long brown hair and a white man with greying hair and beard. All are staring in the same direction. All look very concerned.
Mahershala Ali, Myha’la Herrold, Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke in ‘Leave the World Behind.’ (JoJo Whilden/ Netflix)

Imagine that it’s close to midnight and there’s a knock at the door of your luxurious weekend rental home. A man is standing there, calmly apologizing. He says it’s his home and that he and his daughter need your help. He’s also dressed immaculately in a tux.

What would you do?

Did the tux make a difference? Would the man’s race?

That early scene is when Netflix’s Leave the World Behind really kicks into gear and never slackens as this terrific, apocalyptic, psychological thriller races to its conclusion, exploring race, affluence and responsibility along the way.

The luxurious home becomes a castle of sorts as the outside world crumbles. The man who says he’s the owner tries to explain why he’s turned up. “Under the circumstances, we thought you’d understand,” he says. But understanding is in short supply here.

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Adapted from Rumaan Alam’s acclaimed novel, the movie is set against an end-of-days disaster in which technology — Wi-Fi, TV, phones, internet — has gone silent due to a cyberattack and there’s been a massive blackout.

Well-to-do Amanda (a tart Julia Roberts) and her Atlantic magazine-quoting husband Clay (a hangdog Ethan Hawke) must work with the even-more-well-off G.H. (a calmly sophisticated Mahershala Ali) and his savvy daughter Ruth, (a superb Myha’la). The racial divide easily swamps their joint class affiliation.

Also along for the disaster are Amanda and Clay’s children, a Friends-obsessed daughter (a soulful Farrah Mackenzie, who even wears her hair in a “Rachel” ‘do) and her older, slightly bratty 16-year-old brother (a brooding Charlie Evans).

It’s a story brilliantly adapted and directed by Sam Esmail, showrunner of Mr. Robot, who has made Leave the World Behind into a homage of Alfred Hitchcock, complete with the image of a man trying to outrun a crashing plane and using the master’s discordant loud music. Esmail, who manages to make a group of deer appear sinister, even makes a Hitchcockian cameo as a corpse on a beach.

The director paces the deepening dread flawlessly and there are visual delights throughout, like when the family starts off on their adventure with their car exiting at “Point Comfort.” The camera often swirls and soars through glass cracks or holes in roofs like an uneasy bird, or parks itself at strange angles.

The mysterious catastrophe — ships beach themselves, driverless cars crash like lemmings — sloughs away any pretense at civility, leaving the adults and children to turn on each other. Amanda, in particular, reveals a dark side and her husband — before the disaster, a can’t-we-all-get-along bro — abandons a hysterical survivor by the side of the road. Community is shattered, guns come out and protect-at-all-costs is the motto of the day.

The acting is first rate and it needs to be — this is a drama of manners and secrets, and each sigh or glance reveals so much. We haven’t seen a nasty Roberts character in a while and Ali balances sophistication and slyness artfully. Together, they have some of the film’s best scenes.

But a warning of sorts: It’s best to click play on your remote knowing that the movie is more a satire than a true action-survival movie — the open-ended ending may divide viewers. Click anyway because the journey never drags. And don’t be surprised if there’s a jump in sales of survival tools this holiday season.

‘Leave the World Behind’ begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 8, 2023.

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