Warning: This article contains spoilers for Leave the World Behind (2023).
Sam Esmail’s new thriller, Leave the World Behind, ends with two major stand-offs and a short epilogue that is more satisfying than it really has any right to be. The film spends its final minutes cutting back and forth between a tense confrontation between G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), Clay Sandford (Ethan Hawke), and G.H.’s doomsday prepper former contractor, Danny (Kevin Bacon), and a terrifying encounter that Clay’s wife, Amanda (Julia Roberts), and G.H.’s daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), share in the woods with a strangely aggressive herd of deer. The latter scene is preceded by an argument between Amanda and Ruth about the former’s coldness toward seemingly everyone outside of her family.
Amanda, who opens Leave the World Behind by proclaiming that she “f***ing hates other people,” admits that she doesn’t want to be so closed-off and angry all the time. She’s simply lost too much faith in humanity to believe that anyone other than her husband and her kids, Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) and Archie (Charlie Evans), deserves any kind of kindness from her. However, when Amanda later realizes that Ruth has become surrounded by the same herd of deer that her daughter saw earlier, she makes the uncharacteristically brave choice to try to scare off the deer and, in effect, save Ruth’s life.
As dangerous a decision as it is, it pays off. The deer leave them be. Moments later, Amanda and Ruth find themselves staring together at the distant skyline of New York City as various bombs begin to detonate throughout it.
Across town, G.H. and Clay seek out Danny in the hopes that he might have some medicine for Clay’s son, Archie, who has been overtaken by an inexplicable illness that has caused his teeth to fall out. When they arrive, Danny meets them with a shotgun and clear instructions to stand as far away from him as possible. He extends them some courtesy but ultimately tells them that Archie’s health isn’t his concern and that his only responsibility is to his own family. Shotgun in hand, he offers them some conspiracy theories about the source of the cyberattack that has sent America into a tailspin and wishes them luck. G.H., however, demands that Danny help them in some way.
The tension between the two men eventually boils over. They point their guns at each other, and it seems, for a few moments, like Leave the World Behind is going to end with an unfortunate instance of bloodshed. Clay puts himself between the two men, though, and begs Danny for help — confessing that he can’t think of any other way to save his son’s life. Danny, seeing the genuine fear and compassion in Clay’s eyes, agrees to give him and G.H. some medicine in exchange for cash. The situation suddenly defused, the three men reveal why they each believe different nations, including Russia, Iran, and North Korea, may have had something to do with the cyberattack on America.
Later, once he and Clay are back in their car, G.H. reveals that he used to provide cost-benefit analyses of military campaigns for a former client who worked in the defense sector. He explains that it was ultimately determined that the cheapest way to topple a nation’s social structure would be by electronically isolating its citizens and terrorizing them with misinformation and chaotic, unexplained attacks. “Without a clear enemy or motive, people would start turning on each other,” he continues. “This program was considered the most cost-effective way to destabilize a country because, if the target nation was dysfunctional enough, it would, in essence, do the work for you.”
Together, Leave the World Behind’s final two confrontations not only argue that America’s increasingly divided nature is potentially even more dangerous than anyone realizes, but they also reject the kind of violent tribalism that so many other dystopian, apocalyptic movies treat as inevitable. Maybe, the film posits, there is a chance that human beings can still find a way to come together in the face of unimaginable uncertainty and fear. Coming together again may, in fact, be the only thing that could save America from total destruction.
Leave the World Behind doesn’t end on these quiet moments of connection and understanding between its adult characters, though. Instead, the film catches up one last time with Clay and Amanda’s daughter, Rose, who went missing the night before. She’s revealed to be hanging out in the massive home of one of G.H.’s neighbors, where she discovers a hidden underground bunker — one that Danny told G.H. about just one scene earlier. Viewers watch as Rose makes her way through the fully-stocked, high-tech bunker before reaching its greatest feature: Several shelves’ worth of DVDs and Blu-rays.
On one of the shelves, Rose finds a DVD box set of the final season of Friends and, at long last, she starts watching the sitcom’s series finale. In fulfilling Rose’s greatest wish, Leave the World Behind reveals the tongue-in-cheek meaning behind its final chapter title (“The Last One” is, in case you’d forgotten, the name of Friends’ series finale) and makes a fairly compelling case for the importance of physical media. After all, if the world were to ever become turned upside down by a series of cyberattacks, owning the necessary DVDs and Blu-rays would be the only way for any of us to rewatch episodes of our favorite TV shows. In a 21st-century world like ours, what’s more important than that?
Leave the World Behind is playing in select theaters now. It premieres Friday, December 8 on Netflix.
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