‘Leave the World Behind’ Ending Explained: The Meaning Behind That Ironic Final Scene
by Anna Menta
Written and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Leave the World Behind is an apocalyptic thriller based on the 2020 novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam. Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke star as Amanda and Clay Sandford, who rent a beautiful house on Long Island for an impromptu vacation with their two children. But after they receive a surprise visit from the rental’s owner (Mahershala Ali), it quickly becomes the vacation from hell.
Leave the World Behind is more focused on building an ominous, compelling tone than it is on plot. It does this very effectively, in part thanks to some clever Easter Eggs. But, for that reason, the plot can get confusing at times. Don’t worry, Decider is here to help. Read on for a breakdown of the Leave the World Behind plot summary and the Leave the World Behind ending, explained.
Leave the World Behind | Trailer
Warning: Major Leave the World Behind spoilers ahead. Obviously.
Leave the World Behind plot summary:
Feeling exhausted by life, New York City career-woman Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) books an impromptu vacation at a beach rental home in Long Island. She, her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke), and their kids Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie), all pack up their stuff and make the drive. They lose cell service on the way, much to Rose’s annoyance, who is trying to watch the ’90s sitcom Friends on her iPad. Amanda does a grocery run to the nearby store, and observes a haggard man (Kevin Bacon) stocking up on bottled water.
The Sandford family spends their first day of vacation at the beach. While there, a huge oil tanker boat slowly but surely approaches the shore, not stopping until it collides violently on the beach, scattering the panicked sunbathers. The Sanfords just barely make it out of the way on time. As they leave the beach, a cop tells Clay there have been a “handful of groundings up the coast.” But it’s probably nothing to worry about!
Late that night, after the kids have gone to bed, there’s a knock at the door. It’s a man (Mahershala Ali) in a tuxedo and his college-aged daughter (Myha’la). The man introduces himself as G.H. Scott, the owner of the rental house who’d been emailing Amanda. Amanda is shocked to discover the owner of such a nice house is a Black man, which is pretty racist of her! The daughter, Ruth, picks up on this right away and subtly pushes back. G.H. explains they were at the opera in the Bronx, when a major blackout hit the city. Instead of driving home to the Manhattan apartment where they’d be forced to walk up 16 flights of stairs, G.H. drove to his house in the country. He explains he wanted to go somewhere that felt safe and has electricity. He offers to refund half of the Sandford’s money, if they will allow him and Ruth to stay in the in-law suite in the basement, while the Sandfords stay upstairs.
Amanda tells her husband Clay she thinks G.H. and Ruth might be lying about who they are. This theory is further teased when G.H. struggles to find the right key to unlock the liquor cabinet (but at least he does have the keys!) and says he left his wallet at the opera. But Clay convinces Amanda to let them stay the night. And it quickly becomes clear that G.H. is not lying—even if he is keeping a secret—and they all have much bigger problems to worry about.
The next morning, Amanda wakes to strange news notifications on her phone about a cyberattack in the U.S., which disappear before she can read the stories. The WiFi appears to have briefly been online in the night but is now out again. Rose is very upset, because she was on the series finale of Friends, and wants to know how the show ends. Ruth worries that her mom, who is supposed to be on a plane right now, won’t be able to get home. Clay decides to drive into town to see if he can get news. G.H. drives his car to check-in on one of his neighbors. Rose witnesses a huge herd of deer in the backyard, and Clay hears on the radio that the cyberattack has “catastrophic environmental disaster in the south,” which is affecting animal migration patterns.
Without GPS to guide him, Clay quickly gets lost. He drives past a panicked woman speaking Spanish. Though he can’t understand her language, she is quite clearly begging him for help. Overwhelmed by the situation, Clay simply drives away. His car is bombarded by a plane dropping thousands of red fliers out of the sky. The fliers are covered in Arabic writing, which Archie claims means “death to all Americans.” Meanwhile, G.H. goes to his neighbor’s house and discovers a plane crash on the beach. While surveying the wreckage, another plane crashes into the shore, and G.H. just barely gets out of the way in time.
G.H. reveals to Amanda that he works in the stock market, and based on recent trends, he had a feeling that something terrible was about to happen. He later reveals that one of his most important clients had transformed a lot of money last week, and seemed to hint that something bad was coming. Then there’s a mysterious, piercing noise that’s so loud it’s painful.
Clay finally returns to the house and the Sandfords attempt to escape by car, despite G.H.’s warning that the house is the safest place. The Sandfords realize they can’t get off Long Island, because the highways are blocked by brand-new self-driving Teslas that appear to have gone rogue, and keep crashing into each other. The Sandfords return to the house with G.H. and Ruth.
Things continue to get weird. Rose laments that she will never find out what happens to Ross and Rachel. Her brother demands to know why she cares about a TV show at a time like this, and Rose responds, “They make me happy. I really need that right now, don’t you?”
After vowing to stop waiting around the night before, Rose disappears the next morning. Also, Archie’s teeth start falling out. Maybe it’s related to the weird bug that bit him in the woods. Either way, he needs help. G.H. and Clay drive him to a neighbor that G.H. knows is a doomsday prepper—aka Kevin Bacon, who Amanda saw buying water at the beginning of the film. Meanwhile, Amanda and Ruth go into the woods to look for Rose.
Leave the World Behind ending explained:
Kevin Bacon initially refuses to help Archie. (How would he help him? With some sort of mysterious “medicine.” It’s not important, don’t worry about it.) He theorizes—with his gun in his hand—that the loud noise was a type of microwave radiation beamed out through sound, similar to the reports of strange sonic attacks in Cuba and China in 2016, that caused brain damage, and, supposedly, the loss of teeth. He also says he assumes there is a world war happening, and someone is attacking the U.S. by hacking the technology. (He read that the Russians recently recalled their staff from Washington.) Long story short, Kevin Bacon says this is now a war-zone apocalypse, and he’s only going to take care of his own family. He tells G.H. he should try another neighbor’s house, the Thornes, because they supposedly have a safe house bunker.
Meanwhile, Amanda and Ruth hash out their differences. After Amanda scares away a herd of scary deer that surround Ruth, she sees a house where she thinks Rose may have gone. Ruth sees the skyline of New York City, where she sees a huge cloud of smoke and explosions. The city is being bombed, suggesting that Bacon was right: This is the beginning of a war.
G.H. pulls a gun on Bacon, demanding that he help them. Clay diffuses the situation by begging, and offering to pay Bacon $1000 cash for the medicine. Bacon reluctantly accepts. Back in the car, G.H. tells Clay he thinks they need to go that bunker Bacon mentioned ASAP. He explains that he believe he knows what has happened because he’d heard it discussed among his war-mongering clients. They told him about a “a simple, three-stage maneuver that could topple a country’s government from within.”
“The first stage was isolation,” G.H. explains. “Disable their communication and transportation. Make the target as deaf, dumb, and paralyzed as possible, and set them up for the second stage: Synchronized chaos. Terrorize them with covert attacks and misinformation, overwhelming their defense capabilities, leaving their weapons system vulnerable to extremists in their own military. Without a clear enemy or motive, people will start turning on each other. If done successfully, the third stage would happen on its own: Coup d’état. Civil war.”
It doesn’t sound that simple, to be honest, but basically, this is sort of like a Monsters Are Due on Maple Street situation. Someone messed with a few electronics, sent down a few weird fliers, made a few loud noises, and then sat back and watched as society panicked and destroyed itself.
The final scene of the movie takes place at the Thorne house (the same house Julia Roberts is just outside of). Rose is there, and she discovers the bunker that Kevin Bacon mentioned. In the bunker, she finds a whole wall full of DVDs, including all ten seasons of Friends. She pops in the DVD for the series finale. The signature theme song by the Rembrandts begins to play, Rose smiles, and with that, the movie ends.
Leave the World Behind ending meaning:
Though the movie doesn’t explicitly show the Sandfords and the Scotts reuniting, I think we can assume that all of our main characters will find their way to the bunker. Amanda was just about to enter the Thorne house, and G.H. told Clay they needed to find the Thorne bunker ASAP. Again, things are left open-ended, but I have hope everyone will reunite and be able to safely hunker down in the bunker!
That brings us to the meaning of Rose watching the Friends finale. In addition to being a punchy ending and a fun callback to her obsession with the show, it also hits home one of the story’s main themes: Escapism. As Rose mentioned to her brother earlier, this show makes her happy. Even in the face of unfathomable despair, she can still smile, because she gets to watch Rachel get off that plane for Ross. Even though the world is literally falling apart around them, she can still find happiness.
Now, depending on how cynical you want to be, this could be a happy ending: Our heroes will get to live out their days in this bunker, finding happiness in fictional characters. Or you could view it more darkly: As long as they have the distraction of entertainment, they will ignore the literal collapse of society. It’s a parallel of how they ignored the slow-approaching ship until it was too late, how they ignored the warning signs in the news that Kevin Bacon picked up on, and how all of us are currently ignoring slow, incoming disasters like climate change. But at least we still have TV.
‘Leave the World Behind’ Is Leaving Viewers Baffled. The Book Has Clues.
December 14, 2023
Photo: JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX
The No. 1 movie on Netflix this week is Leave the World Behind, writer-director Sam Esmail’s adaptation of the excellent novel of the same name. Why is it such a hit? Perhaps it’s because the film stars big names Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, and Mahershala Ali. Perhaps it’s because the film amps up the much more subtly stated disaster-movie elements of the book, adding set pieces like an oil tanker running aground on a beach and appealing to apocalypse junkies still unsatisfied by all six series based on The Walking Dead. Or perhaps it’s because the novel that the film is based on is by Rumaan Alam, who viewers might miss from his previous work as a Slate advice columnist.
Even though the movie is a lot more explicit than the book, with Netflix levels of exposure have come some befuddled responses, which you can find on sites like Letterboxd, where some viewers are singling out the ambiguous ending. “So? What now?” writes one. “Alright so what was the point??” writes another. The Letterboxd people can join the Goodreads fans, who have been writing different flavors of “Huh?” in their reviews of Alam’s novel for years.
Confused film viewers may be interested to know that the end of the novel, like the movie, tells you very little that is definitive about the disaster and about what will happen to the characters in the future, but Alam does employ a few strategies of oblique suggestion that fill in some blanks. One of those is foreshadowing. Roberts and Hawke play the Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay Sandford, who go on a last-minute getaway with their teen son and daughter to a house on Long Island—a vacation that’s interrupted when G.H. Scott (Ali), the owner of the house, shows up in the middle of the night with his daughter, Ruth (Myha’la), bearing bad news about what’s going on out in the world. Both novel and film depict the teenage son, Archie (Charlie Evans), horrifyingly losing his teeth at the beginning of the third act, perhaps in response to a series of sonic blasts. But the book is clear about Archie’s fate. In a sickening and memorable passage, Alam writes that Archie, after his teeth fall out, pokes his tongue into the “tender empty pockets” left on his gums. “They were soft and pleasant, like the recesses of the human body his own was designed to fit into, something he’d never know firsthand,” Alam writes. “Could he forgive the universe that denial of his own particular purpose? He wouldn’t get the chance.” Sorry, Book Archie! Archie in the film may or may not survive, depending on your level of optimism.
The ending of the movie already has a fair amount of body horror to offer, but the book has far more. Archie’s sickness—what it might be, how many might have it—hangs more grimly over the novel’s ending than the film’s. Clay is at one point described as not noticing “the tingle in his knees, his elbows, or he did and took it for fear.” What’s that tingle? It can’t be good! In another flash forward, we hear that the wife in the Thorne family, the absent people who own a house that the teen daughter, Rose, explores at the end of both novel and film, is stranded at an airport in San Diego, and sometimes dreamed of her house on Long Island “before she succumbed to cancer in one of the tent camps the army managed to erect outside the airport”—a quick timeline that implies her cancer may have also come from the mysterious noises that seem to have affected Archie. And we hear that Karen, the wife of Danny, the contractor to whom G.H. appeals for help with Archie’s situation, is about to lose her teeth, as well.
The Danny of the novel is far less of a prepper than Kevin Bacon’s angry conspiracy theorist of the film, a caricature who serves to amplify the film’s themes of discord between people. Book Danny is certainly not friendly, and wants G.H. and Clay to leave his property, but he’s not violent toward them, and he doesn’t know much about what’s gone on, either. “Had to be a plane. I don’t think there’s any information getting out, so I assume it’s a war … Has to be an attack I think?” he says. “They were talking about the super hurricane on CNN. The Iranians or whoever—they planned it right. The perfect shitshow.”
Alam’s novel doles out information about the global shitshow sparingly. Instead, we get glimpses of people around the world reacting to, and becoming victims of, whatever has happened: a man trapped in an MTA elevator, babies dying in the NICU, restaurants grilling the contents of walk-in refrigerators and handing them out for free, a mother drowning her daughters in the bathtub. It’s a collage of individual stories, meant to suggest something large—a life-changing event—that we perceive only in flashes.
The movie, on the other hand, has G.H. deliver a speech to Clay about how he fears a scenario described by a defense industry client of his—an enemy-imposed progressive destabilization of American life, achieved via cyberattack, information blackout, and citizens turning against one another in civil war. This is just G.H.’s theory of what has happened and will happen, but the movie gives it some credence via the confrontation between Danny and G.H. and Clay, and then by showing the skyline of New York City as we hear gunfire and watch mushroom clouds rising over it.