Mahershala Ali, Myhya-la, Julia Roberts, and Ethan Hawke in 'Leave The World Behind'

How ‘Leave The World Behind’ Pays Homage to Some Iconic Masters of Suspense

Sam Esmail knows what scares modern audiences, and it’s not monsters or zombies. Netflix just released the Mr. Robot creator’s newest film, Leave The World Behind, an apocalyptic psychological thriller that skews heavily towards satire as it exposes humanity’s worst fear: losing all contact with technology.

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Esmail adapted Leave The World Behind from the popular 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam. The movie stars Julia Roberts as Amanda Sanford, a burned-out Manhattan executive who abruptly decides to take her family to a luxurious Airbnb on Long Island for the weekend. Her nebbish professor husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their two screenagers Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) love the modern house they’ve rented … until two strangers show up claiming to be the homeowners.

George H. “G.H.” Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his twenty-something daughter Ruth (Myha’la) return to the house after a mysterious blackout hits the city, starting a chain of events that forces the two families to band together in a rapidly changing world.

When a coordinated cyber attack wipes out satellites, internet, and every other form of communication, they are, well, screwed. “I can barely do anything without my cellphone and GPS,” Clay admits at one crucial moment. “I am a useless man.”

Director Esmail enjoys playing with the camera to produce interesting and unusual perspectives. When combined with composer Mac Quayle’s unnerving score, viewers feel off-kilter and unnerved. A scene featuring the family in the car listening to their individual mobile devices cleverly uses audio to show how isolated technology makes us, even when surrounded by others.

Cinematic nods to Hitchcock

Stylistically, it’s hard not to notice the influence of Alfred Hitchcock and other masters of suspense. As Amanda ascends a stairway inside the house, the camera spins until we feel like we’re inside an M.C. Escher portrait, much like an iconic scene in Vertigo.

the stairwell in 'Vertigo' by Alfred Hitchcock
(Paramount Pictures)

In another scene, a character runs for his life as an airplane comes in for a crash landing behind him, drawing comparisons to Cary Grant desperately fleeing a similarly low-flying crop duster in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. In another nod to Hitchcock, Esmail also makes a quick cameo as a corpse on the beach, something M. Night Shyamalan also does in all of his films.

Other stylistic influences

The idea of nature becoming the enemy is another common theme. In Leave The World Behind, harmless creatures like deer are transformed into potential threats. Hitchcock mastered this feat in The Birds, and Shyamalan attempted something similar in The Happening.

Like Shyamalan, Esmail is excellent at telling different stories within the same frame. Characters in Leave The World Behind are often in the foreground or off to the side while something else, or nothing at all, happens behind them. Director Jordan Peele also utilizes this technique, drawing the viewer closer to the action and forcing us to interrogate the background for clues. Peele’s influence is also seen in Esmail’s exploration of class, technology, and racial divides. Stylistically, a scene in which a ship runs aground would fit right into Nope or Us.

While Esmail stops short of using a split screen, his liberal use of canted angle shots also calls to mind the directorial style of Brian De Palma. When Esmail’s characters are subjected to a piercing radioactive audio signal, the screen flashes bright red, like the famous prom scene in Carrie.

Finally, Esmail’s use of family dynamics and interpersonal relationships reminds us of director Ari Aster (Midsommar, Hereditary). Aster is excellent at drawing viewers in with compelling characters, even unlikable ones like the ones in Leave The World Behind. Yet Esmail doesn’t “go there” like Aster does. If Aster had adapted the novel, we have no doubt that one scene involving a bevy of deer would have been a lot gorier.

There’s a lot to love and admire in Leave The World Behind, although it arguably could have used a bit of trimming in the dialog-heavy middle. It’s a surprisingly fun watch—even more so when you acknowledge the many fine films that walked so this movie could run.

Leave The World Behind is available to stream on Netflix

(featured image: Netflix)

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Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins (she/her) is a contributing writer for The Mary Sue. She writes about pop culture, entertainment, and web memes, and has published a book or a funny day-to-day desk calendar about web humor every year for a decade. When not writing, she's listening to audiobooks or watching streaming movies under a pile of her very loved (spoiled) pets.