FILM REVIEW: Leave The World Behind
Cinema is a mass medium. It’s entertainment. When makers of movies forget this, what they make is more, not less, likely to fail as Art. And some of the greatest cinema was moneymaking craft that we recognise as Art as an accident.
But I was also reminded by a documentary touching on the reception of mid-period Spielberg that much middlebrow movie-making doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Leave The World Behind is not Spielbergian, but it sets out to grip us and it sets out to Say Something, but what it says is ambiguous and unpretentious—and its execution is sufficiently well done and story big enough in scope to bear the weight of the ideas it sneaks on board.
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The direction is stylish and eerie. The setting and suspense tempt the director/cinematographer into Hitchcockian angles. The symbolic imagery is [WARNING: SPOILERS] in-your-face without being irritating and contributes without distracting.
When it comes to movie-making, being merely “mid” can be good—sometimes even great. LTWB is not great, but it’s very good.
The film’s title, billing, and opening monologue all tell us up front that the players are going to be cut off from other people. But they are also going to be cut off from mass culture—and it appears to be a deliberate irony that, while the dialogue addresses cyber-war and culture-war themes directly, the one moral that the plot itself hammers home is that it’s (literally) vital to preserve even lightweight, mass-market popular entertainment1. It can’t be an accident that one of the main protagonists is a media studies professor, and that his wife, Amanda, is an advertising executive.
The story’s outermost frames are:
Amanda’s wish to get away from people—she hates people.
Her younger child Ruth’s quest to watch the final episode of Friends—she loves Friends.
The infrastructure of Netflix’s Leave The World Behind is as exposed as the pipework of the Pompidou, but it’s the extent to which our world’s information infrastructure is exposed to attack that drives the plot.
We know from the outset that things are going to go wrong, but don’t know how wrong and we don’t know when, and LTWB isn’t going to rush into it. The movie is long and slow, and that’s a good thing. Things take time to happen, but what makes the script so good is what doesn’t happen. There are turns that you will see coming, but I there are ones that I guarantee you will not—and they are the one of the best kinds of unpredictable: You see the cues and expect the unfolding of a trope, but the story instead curls a different paw.
Is this plot intended to be allegorical? Is it meant to be anti-racist? Is it meant to warn us about growing political divisions in the contemporary United States? Is it intended to be dystopian? Is it meant to warn us about the weaknesses of our dependence upon vulnerable technology?
Or is the core message a smaller and more parochial one: about the business of moving images?
I can’t support this last suggestion without a big spoiler, so I won’t; but I beg you to stick with this film through to its final scene.
I have to talk about the cast: because it includes four decades-established US A-listers, in only the second feature by writer-director Sam Esmail (a man who, ten years ago, was editing “making of” shorts for The Fast And The Furious franchise).
Julia Roberts allows herself to be Hollywood ugly, inside and out. Ethan Hawke balances being useless and seedy with being the heart of the story. Mahershala Ali (who replaced the originally attached Denzel Washington2) is the master of pained concern; but, here, he stirs in hints of withheld secrets and hidden threat. Kevin Bacon plays the sort of antagonist that his younger self raged against in his breakthrough role.
The child/teen actors are all excellent and—this isn’t meant as an insult—all distinctive-looking—rather than extruded-plastic, Village-Of-The-Damned TV-junk-food-ad-rejects.
So why did they do it? Cynic as I am, I don’t believe the answer is just money. Yes, two or three of the leads do get to play somewhat against type, which must have appealed. And, for the adults at least, this was clearly not a gruelling shoot. Even some of the supposedly location shots look suspiciously like they took place indoors, in a place with air-conditioning and macrobiotic snacks.
The No.1 reason the big hitters stepped up, I suspect, is that the words are well-written and the characters are well-drawn. Others might contend—indeed some critics have—that the film gets in over its head; but—unless I’m underestimating the subtlety of its maker(s), this is not a work that overreaches its wisdom or preaches one simple overarching moral. It’s true that the dialogue is leaner than real life, in the way that didactic dialogue can be, and that the characters often draw general conclusions from their specific circumstances, (and do so out loud), but none of them is obviously intended to be The Voice Of The Author and they don’t even agree with each other.
Hard though it is these days to get it into the heads of DEI-obsessed commentators, what people say in a piece of dramatic art and what lessons we are intended to take away from it (if any) are not the same thing.
LTWB is the first fiction to come out of Barack and Michelle Obama’s five-year-old production company, so you would expect there to be a Message (of a US Left-liberal variety) to be embedded in it. But, unlike many overlong contemporary films, LTWB gives much of that time over to its characters for them to develop into, and for its ideas to become three-dimensional as well.
There is time for us to see, for example, that a hint of perceived racism can be more about that perception than actual racism; it even cleverly has anti-black racism only hinted at on the part of a character we know to be an equal-opportunity hater, but anti-white racism spelled out by a non-white character. There is time for us to see that, even within a context of large-scale human cruelty, bad circumstances can sometimes bring out the good in flawed people. There is certainly time for us to be made to appreciate that the odd little obsessions of people we overlook can have worth.
I recommend you don’t watch this. You will enjoy the film more without seeing the clickbait (streambait?) set-piece spectacles embedded in it.
No, watch the film instead. At worst, it will annoy you and you can come here to complain in the comments; but, even if that happens, I bet Leave The World Behind won’t leave your brain behind for at least a week.
Come back to read this sentence after you’ve watched the film to the end.
Washington would have done a fine job, but I fear his charisma would have got in the way of the storytelling.