The camera in Sam Esmail's Leave the World Behind moves with such effortless grace that it instantly sucks you into this film. The images are clean and polished, and this neatness has its own magnetism (Tod Campbell is the cinematographer). The movie looks beautiful and gorgeous. It's a treat for your eyes. But from the beginning itself, this beauty seems to hide some ugliness. You are unable to put your finger on it, yet something definitely doesn't feel right. The smooth transitions and the tilted frames create a sense of uneasiness. Everything feels too perfect, which seems exactly the problem. The opening moments appear like a calm before a storm, and that storm initially arrives in the form of an oil tanker.
The Sanford family - Amanda (Julia Roberts), Clay (Ethan Hawke), Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), and Archie (Charlie Evans) - go to a beach to relax. The younger daughter, Rose, notices the aforementioned oil tanker at a distance, which slowly comes nearer to the beach and eventually crashes into the soil. This accident can be taken as an intrusion. Other visuals that suggest intrusion include the arrival of deer in the garden, as well as the "strangers" - G. H. Scott and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la) - who claim that the house the Sanford family has rented belongs to them. The whole movie, in fact, rests on the complications generated through (online) intrusion: Hackers cause blackouts and make satellites non-functional. But has such an attack indeed taken place, or are G. H. and Ruth some criminals who want to harm the Sanfords?
Since phones, television, and radios do not work in the presence of the characters, it becomes impossible for them to verify the ongoing situation. Moreover, G. H.'s excuse when asked to show his identity card sounds bogus. Understandably, there is some hostility between the two families, which is sharply expressed through that shot where G. H. and Ruth are seen standing outside the house while Amanda and Clay watch them from within the premises. As viewers, we automatically take Amanda's side because we follow her from the beginning. But what if G. H. is telling the truth? This air of distrust produces a lot of excitement. And Esmail's story - adapted from Rumaan Alam's novel - doesn't puncture its strength by going into unremarkable places. What's so thrilling about Leave the World Behind is that you never know what will happen next.
Like the characters, we, too, become desperate for genuine information. Hence, when a girl walks towards a corridor instead of answering her mother's call, you tell her to stay on her path as you think she will stumble upon a solid explanation. This gives rise to a satisfying conclusion, which puts a smile on your face. Esmail has a good sense of humor. What's incredible, though, is that he never lets the humor be a nuisance. In the hands of a lesser director, the film's tone could have become wildly unstable. I didn't laugh at all the jokes, but that never felt like a problem. I did smile when Amanda and G. H. danced like teenagers. Roberts is so charming that her carefree movement fills you with reassurance. The world, even if for a short while, seems better.
Esmail has a firm control over his frames. He makes them dance to his tunes with style and confidence. There are moments - like when G. H. goes to a neighbor's house only to run away from a falling airplane - that leave you breathless (Lisa Lassek is the editor). The Sanford family tries to escape the madness, but their path is blocked by self-driving vehicles. Leave the World Behind says that we rely so much on tech that without it, our world will collapse. It also playfully underlines how physical discs are better than online streaming services. It's ironic then that the film is available on Netflix. Whatever. Esmail's movie is engaging, disorienting, and a lot of fun. I liked it very much.
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