'Leave the World Behind' Review: Meet Julia Roberts' Apocalypse-Karen – Rolling Stone

By David Fear
It starts not with a bang, but a lack of Wi-Fi. The internet goes down, which means no social media, no email, no communications with the outside world, and — because this is a Netflix movie about worst-case scenarios — no streaming. Then satellites are knocked out, which kills any and all navigation systems reliant upon orbiting technology in the U.S. Because animal migration patterns have been disrupted, you may see more deer than usual popping up in your front yard. Keep an eye out for flamingos in your pool, too. Propaganda pamphlets start dropping from the sky. And finally, a loud, piercing noise, so sonically powerful as to be debilitating. After that, chaos reigns. No one needs to push America off a cliff. Just nudge folks in the direction toward the cliff, and we’ll do the rest on our own.
This is the setup of Leave the World Behind, director Sam Esmail’s star-driven adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 doom-lit novel. And as far as nightmare fodder goes for those who lay awake at night, anxiously contemplating the end of civilization and everyday complacency (in that order), it has all of a likely viewer’s pressure points mapped out. We begin with a well-to-do family that decides to get out of the city and enjoy a few days of unwinding in a town so quaint they call it a “hamlet”; the movie’s title doubles as the selling point on the rental’s listing. We exit on the verge of total Armageddon. In between, the movie pays close attention to how its sextet of main characters — three adults, three young adults — come to grips with the cryptic, slowly devolving situation at hand. One of them in particular bears close scrutiny. Technically, her name is Amanda. We prefer to call her Apocalypse Karen.

She’s the matriarch of the Sandfords, one of two families caught up in this downward spiral, and if you’ve ever wanted to see Julia Roberts in full may-I-speak-to-the-manager mode, this is 100 percent the movie for you. Her type-A Brooklynite is the one who impulsively books the impromptu family trip to Long Island without bothering to first inform her family. This lady needs to get away. Any questions? No? Good. Grab the kids and start packing. We’ll pick up the requisite several cases of rosé when we get there.

Her college-professor husband, Clay (Ethan Hawke, playing off his IRL befuddled hipster-dad persona nicely), shrugs, loads up the car, and gets behind the wheel. Their son, Archie (Charlie Evans), hopes he can meet up with a potential hookup in nearby Sag Harbor. Their daughter, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), is obsessed with Friends. When her online connection goes out right as she’s about to check out the series finale, she flips out. You’d have thought the world was ending. That’s still a few days away. In the meantime, the family is going to enjoy their home away from home. Then an oil tanker inexplicably grounds itself on the very beachfront where the Sandfords are relaxing. The family’s reaction runs from worried to yeah, whatever. Apocalypse Karen, however, is downright angry. This is the kind of shit that ruins much-earned vacations!
Roberts has long left the burden of being America’s Sweetheart behind, though it pays to remember how moviegoers first saw her as she transitioned from working actor to above-the-title name. Her heroes were headstrong, steel-spined, usually just south of sassy, and always sympathetic; even when the characters leaned toward extremely flawed (go back and watch My Best Friend’s Wedding), they were at least likable-adjacent. The wine mom she gives us in Leave the World Behind suggests Roberts is having fun leaving a lot of past movie-star niceties behind. This Apocalypse Karen lets her indulge in some short-fuse glares and snapped replies, but it isn’t a caricature, either. Both Roberts and we recognize that the type she’s playing probably isn’t that far from someone we know, if not someone we glimpse in the mirror. In fact, it’s that slight spin of middle-class entitlement that she puts in her line readings and eye rolls that makes her relatable, and thus makes us complicit in what’s to come. We have seen the enemy, and they’re not so sure the arugula on this salad is truly organic, waiter.

All these mysterious phenomena and minor inconveniences have been warmups for the real test, however. After the kids have gone to bed, there’s a knock at the door. Amanda and Clay find a man in a tuxedo and a young woman on the porch. His name is George “G.H.” Scott (Mahershala Ali), and he’s the owner of the rental. The twentysomething standing next to him is his daughter, Ruth (Industry‘s Myha’la). They’re so sorry to bother them, but you see, there’s been a massive blackout in New York City. They’d been at the symphony in the Bronx — George is on the board — and given how things tend to get a little crazy when the power goes out in the city, they decided to come here until things calm down. They’ll sleep in the basement, and even refund half of the Sandfords’ money.
Of course, says Clay. Not so fast, says Amanda. How do they know they’re really who they say they are? The way she questions George by asking, “So this is your house?” gives us all the subtext we need to know. You’re not sure if Clay is being extra compliant because he doesn’t want to seem racist. But you are sure that Amanda has dropped any pretense of giving them the benefit of the doubt and moved straight to passive-aggressive and overly protective. Ruth is incensed. George counters with back-bending politeness. He may not have his wallet, and maybe there aren’t pictures of the Scotts on display everywhere, but he does have a key to the top-shelf liquor cabinet. Meanwhile, Amanda demands they go over the terms and conditions page, or else.

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These initial encounters, as well as some of the later tête-à-tête configurations, come off like theater pieces no matter how many skewed angles or fancy camera moves Esmail uses (there’s never been a God’s-eye perspective shot that the Mr. Robot creator didn’t love). Yet it’s these spiky, loaded, coded interactions that give Leave the World Behind its voltage, even more than the occasional sneak peeks at what’s happening right outside their doorstep — though trust us when we say you’ll never look at self-driving Teslas the same way again. If anything, you wish the film leaned into this notion of masks cracking and peeling off in regards to class and, specifically, race. Amanda clearly fashions herself as a progressive Park Slope resident who’s also a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, yet there’s an inherent ugliness that happens early on with her and George, and later with Ruth, that’s never fully explored. Touched on, sure — the two adults eventually arrive at enough of a detente to allow them to dance to Next’s R&B jam “Too Close” — but not explored. Apocalypse Karen gets off too easily. The tension remains, until the story needs it to be swept aside for a grander statement.

Which is that: The real weapon being used here isn’t a cyberattack, a smart bomb, or sabotage. It’s homegrown suspicion. At one point, Ali — who, we should point out, lifts up every single scene he’s in, and every partner he shares the screen with — talks about his day job as a money manager and market analyst, and a client who’s in the defense industry. The fear this government bigwig harbored was that, given a few well-executed disasters, we’d turn on each other naturally. That he’s relaying this idea in front of a blue-collar neighbor played by a menacing Kevin Bacon brandishing a shotgun only underlines the civil-war notion. (We applaud the filmmakers’ restraint in not putting Bacon’s survivalist in a MAGA cap.) The seeds of our destruction have already been planted by us; they simply need a little water and and sunlight to grow. And the more that Leave the World Behind pokes at that notion, the more you fear that this isn’t a thriller. It could be a documentary with movie stars.
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