Leave the World Behind: Julia Roberts has her best role in years in this enthralling thriller

Julia Roberts in Leave the World Behind
Julia Roberts in Leave the World Behind - Netflix

Leave the World Behind is, in a sense, a home-invasion thriller – though just who’s doing the invading and what’s being invaded aren’t initially clear. One night, at a desperately chic holiday let in rural New York State, the Sandfords – Julia Roberts’s Amanda and Ethan Hawke’s Clay – hear the thud of a car door, the crunch of footsteps and a purposeful knock, and they creep to the door to see who’s outside, while their two teenagers sleep upstairs.

They find a suavely dressed couple (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold) who claim to be father and daughter: the house is theirs, they explain, and they were hoping to stay over in the guest bedroom rather than contend with the traffic on the way to their city apartment. Clay, a habitual people-pleaser, ushers them in, especially after Ali’s George offers them a 50 percent refund in exchange. But Amanda, a sharp-eyed cynic, smells a rat. People don’t ordinarily behave like this, she reasons, so there must be something bigger going on. But what? And how big is it?

Over the next couple of hours, those questions are answered, albeit in playful, circling ways that seed more doubt than set your mind at ease. Adapted by director Sam Esmail from a 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, the film operates like one of M Night Shyamalan’s better all-bets-are-off puzzlers, in which a string of bizarre and unnerving events, from unexplained power outages and deafening noises to crashing aeroplanes and oil tankers, slowly fuse into a coherent crisis.

Part of the fun is watching these strange occurrences – let’s not call them Happenings – crunch into one another nose-to-tail, much like the fleet of self-driving cars which apparently take it upon themselves to block all the main roads outside the holiday house.

Yet Esmail and his cast clearly understand that their characters’ reactions should be just as knottily intriguing as the things to which they’re reacting. Each of the relationships between the film’s four leads has its own juicily compelling dynamic, playing on broader American social tensions around race, wealth, sex and so forth without ever being so gauche as to turn any of it into a teachable moment.

The enmity twisting away like fraying rope between Roberts’s Amanda and Herrold’s Ruth is especially fun, and the obvious relish Roberts takes in playing this prickly, shrewd but not unlikeable woman crackles through each of her scenes. Not that her CV is jammed with alternatives – what, Hollywood squandering the talents of a gifted actress in her 50s? – but it must be her best cinema role in at least 10 years.

The film looks good and moves well. It earns its initially forbidding running time. It’s driven by human behaviour you might actually recognise. All of these things we used to take for granted in studio productions on this scale. Leave the World Behind might often have the air of a noughties throwback, but you wouldn’t want it to be a minute more up to date.

15 cert, 140 min. On Netflix now