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Leave the World Behind and The Boy and the Heron

click to enlarge On my daily stress walk.

Leave the World Behind

On my daily stress walk.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND. A degree of healthy apprehension generally attends the adaptation of a very recent, very successful novel (this one published in 2020 by author Rumaan Alam). Of course, this is a formula as old as Hollywood, empowering the twinned cabals of movies and publishing to form a hydra and hopefully double their money. Such adaptations can sometimes be seen as "gimmes" for bored, old studio hands or directors new to the game — more dubious still. It was at this intersection of commerciality and cynicism that I met Leave the World Behind, just the second feature from director Sam Esmail, who also adapted the novel (which I have not read but I hear good things). In fairness, Esmail is no rookie, having created the series Homecoming and Mr. Robot, the bulk of which he directed and/or wrote. But I've not seen a frame of his work; my experience of the guy is based entirely on his generally good-humored appearances on nerdy movie podcasts.

And despite what I see as Netflix's recent string of successes betting on genre product and established artists alike, the brand still bears something of a stigma. At least out here in the hinterland, we're unlikely to be able to see their projects theatrically and, as much as I've carped to the contrary, that experience is part of the fullness of moviedom, especially as the industry (or at least its output) embarks on this late-stage recovery period.

I was uninformed and skeptical about what Leave the World Behind and Esmail as auteur might have to offer. It might have been the perfect perspective because both art and artist delivered far more than I could have hoped.

I can't say whether Alam's novel, arriving in the year of our undoing, predicted or documented anything. But Esmail's adaptation, these three-plus short, interminable years later, successfully comments on the world as it is and may soon be, couching the parable in an almost locked-room mystery thriller that addresses American racism, classism, paranoia and co-dependent relationship to technology with consummate style, a bit of humor and the assuredness of a truly accomplished creator.

On an unremarkable Brooklyn day, Clay (Ethan Hawke) awakens to wife Amanda (Julia Roberts) rather hurriedly packing their luggage. By way of a brief, humanist-becoming-misanthropist speech, Amanda informs Clay that she has rented a luxury house near a small-town on Long Island, starting that very afternoon. Trundling the children, 16-year-old Archie (Charlie Evans) and 13-year-old Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) into the Jeep, the clan Sandford sets out for an impromptu but not disagreeable weekend at the beach.

Things start getting almost apocalyptically weird shortly after their arrival, events of which are rendered almost an afterthought by the midnight arrival of G.H. (Mahershala Ali) and his 20-something daughter Ruth (Myha'la), the owners of the vacation rental, decked out in formal wear, having decamped rather precipitously from the city. Tensions mount, things begin to fall apart.

The sudden throwing together of the two families serves to delineate the adults' general attitudes, with Amanda skewing perhaps toward inchoate racism, ostensibly in service of the protection of her children. Clay plays perhaps too-chill for the circumstances, while G.H., unable to verify his identity, defaults to decorum and diplomacy, even as he quite clearly obfuscates.

Leave the World Behind is a prickly proposition, daring us to both dislike and sympathize with our protagonists, while simultaneously disorienting us with information both withheld and delivered. Esmail, with director of photography Tod Campbell, gives visual language to our discomfiture with a truly dynamic camera, moving it impossible ways, framing dialogue scenes with alarming precision and deploying vertigo-inducing zooms to mess with the horizon and add punchlines to wry little jokes.

Ali is, as ever, note perfect, eventually letting his implacability recede into vulnerability and the impossible task of guarding unthinkable secrets. Hawke continues his brilliant recent run, playing the kindly, too-handsome doofus with a keenly attuned sense of self-awareness and comic timing. My'hala, as the voice of reason in a house filled with strangers, holds her own within a cast of multi-decade veterans. And Roberts, seeming to truly have fun in front of the camera for the first time in recent memory, finds a through-line for Amanda that addresses her America's sweetheart past with a smart, knowing middle finger up, satirizing her own persona and the presumptions of her characters at once. R. 138M. NETFLIX.

THE BOY AND THE HERON. Hayao Miyazaki, inarguably the most titanic figure in modern animation, has a movie in theaters. You should go see it; he's in his 80s and may not make many more.

Like everything Miyazaki has made, The Boy and the Heron spins out like the contents of a dreamlife rendered in pen and ink, replete with carnivorous giant parakeet henchmen and pelicans forced to feed on the ghostly forms of unmade human lives. Foregrounded by the experience of the second World War in Tokyo and the countryside, it is every bit as beautiful as any other Studio Ghibli production. The narrative may tilt nonsensical a time or two. So what? This is visionary world-building from one of the most important artists in the history of cinema. Full stop. PG13. 125M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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