The Ending of 'Leave the World Behind' Is Designed to Keep You Guessing

Does anyone else make it to the bunker??

Mahershala Ali as G.H. and Julia Roberts as Amanda
(Image credit: JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX)

Directed by Sam Esmail, Netflix's latest buzz-worthy film Leave the World Behind centers on two families who are thrown together amid life-threatening events. On the first night of their vacation, Amanda Sanford (Julia Roberts), her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke), and their teen children Archie (Charlie Evans) and Rose (Farrah Mackenzie) get a surprise visit from the owner of their Long Island rental, G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali), and his daughter Ruth (Myha'la). The two strangers have fled a blackout in NYC and want to stay for the night, but Amanda is inherently mistrustful of others (and a bit racist, since she doubts that G.H. is the real owner). As the Internet and cell service goes down, followed by several terrifying, unexplained events, Leave the World Behind depicts a different kind of disaster movie, playing out the ways the discord brings two very different families together and leaving viewers without most answers to how the world is ending.

This focus on the intimate rather than the cataclysmic makes for a fascinating yet often frustrating watch, especially once viewers get to the vague, needle-drop ending. Neither the film, which premiered on December 8, nor its source material, Rumaan Alam's 2020 novel by the same name, are all to worried about giving a play-by-play of how the world is coming to an end. Still, it is helpful to go through all the symbolic threads that the film's conclusion leaves dangling for viewers to tie together. Read on for our breakdown of the final moments of Leave the World Behind, from where each character ends up in the last few scenes, to what Esmail and Alam have said about the film's overarching themes.

We don't see whether the two families live out the rest of the apocalypse together.

By the end of the movie, the two very different families have more or less bonded through the strange events affecting the Eastern seaboard. It all begins with a massive oil tanker, which crashes into the shore a beach, causing the Sanford family to flee their spots on the sand. Then G.H. and Ruth show up at their vacation rental door; Amanda and Ruth are distrusting foils, while Clay and G.H. want to keep the peace. Then comes the ear-splitting sonic blasts, the random red fliers printed with a threatening message (in Arabic, which seems like an unnecessarily xenophobic inclusion), the barricade of self-driving Teslas (lol) and the airplanes crash-landing in a neighbor's backyard. None of these harbingers of doom directly harm the group (except G.H.'s run-in with the plane), until youngest child Rose goes missing, Archie begins throwing up blood, and his teeth come loose from his mouth.

And so the remaining group splits in two. G.H. and Clay take Archie to survivalist Danny (Kevin Bacon) seeking medicine, while Amanda and Ruth look for Rose in the surrounding forest. Danny refuses to help at first, citing an every man for himself mentality to the point where he and G.H. draw guns on each other, until Clay's pleas—and admittance that he's a useless man without wifi or GPS, which, same tbh—convince him to hand over some penicillin. Meanwhile, Amanda and Ruth have finally come to a place of agreement over the fact that people are kind of horrible, and excuse themselves of their horribleness because "we use paper straws and order free-range chicken." Amanda's distrust has been her main character trait, but Ruth fully accepts it and points out the obvious truth of humanity: we need each other anyway.

After the standoff, Danny shares that he has his own theories about the events. He compares the sonic attacks to a similar technique used in Cuba, and he claims that a friend saw the same red fliers but in Korean or Mandarin (two very different languages, but sure, whatever). That extra info confirms G.H.'s fears that a foreign entity is trying to create unrest throughout the country, inciting a new civil war as Americans turn on each other (alluding back a couple min to the gun standoff). The best place to take cover is an illegal bunker in a nearby mansion, which happens to be exactly where Rose ran off to earlier. Amanda also finds Rose's path to the bunker, as Ruth sees a mushroom cloud rising over New York City in the distance.

We don't see either group arrive at the bunker, though. Instead, the final moments are Rose scanning a huge wall of DVDs (a win for digital media), as she finds a copy of Friends' final season. She turns on the last episode, and the credits roll as "I'll Be There For You" begins to play.

The book is just as vague as the movie—though it does give one important answer.

Myha’la as Ruth, Mahershala Ali as G.H., Ethan Hawke as Clay and Julia Roberts as Amanda in Leave the World Behind

(Image credit: JoJo Whilden/NETFLIX)

In a Rolling Stone interview, director Sam Esmail said that he developed the movie as a looser adaptation of the novel, telling the outlet, "I started to see a movie that could stand on its own and tell the same story that I think Rumaan was after in the book." The two biggest differences are the nature of the apocalypse and the ages of G.H. and Ruth. In the book, Ruth is G.H.'s wife, and the pair are significantly older than Amanda and Clay. (So yes, the chemistry-laded dance scene between Amanda and G.H. is unique to the movie.)

Since the book had more space to build a foreboding atmosphere off fewer events, it only includes a loss of power, sudden sickness, and an unexplained piercing noise. Esmail turned the events up a notch, adding in plane crashes, the beached oil tanker, and the barricade of self-driving cars. The movie's also the only version of the story that uses the term "cyberattack," which is just vague enough to let imaginations run wild in the terrifying possibilities.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to believe modern technology will never fail us, Barack Obama (who executive-produced the film along with Michelle Obama through their Higher Ground Productions banner) gave Esmail script notes that scared the director. The former president said that the director's idea of the apocalypse wasn't that far off from what would actually happen. "I am writing what I think is fiction, for the most part, I’m trying to keep it as true to life as possible, but I’m exaggerating and dramatizing," the director told Vanity Fair. "And to hear an ex-president say you’re off by a few details…I thought I was off by a lot! The fact that he said that scared the fuck out of me."

The book does offer one more assuaging detail in its ending. While the movie ends with Rose settling in to Friends, book Rose isn't focused on finally watching the final episode after getting through 10 seasons. (Book Rose does watch the show, but it's mentioned as a passing detail.) Instead, the book's final chapter is comprised of Rose entering the house and gathering supplies before presumably making her way back to the others. We at least get the notion that Rose is trying to reunite with the group, but in the end both the book and movie's ending is left up to however the audience wants to continue the story in their head.

The 'Friends' references tie the movie together.

Friends fanatic Rose is arguably the most interesting character in Leave the World Behind, possibly because she is the least jaded. (Clay could also be up there, but he loses a bit of his soul when he leaves the distressed Spanish-speaking woman on the side of the road.) All she seems to care about throughout the movie is finding out whether her favorite fictional characters have a happy ending. She's presented in opposition to her blasé older brother when she tells him that they bring her happiness and hope in "this f**ked up world." She says she cares about them, and his response is, "Maybe you shouldn't."

Sure, it could be considered irresponsible or ignorant to focus on a fictional story more than what's really going on in the world, but Rose speaks to another essential part of humanity: the need for escape. Rose is constantly ignored or dismissed by her family, beginning when she saw the oil tanker getting larger in the distance so it can be most beneficial to her to focus on what she can control. Rose saw the writing on the crumbling wall much earlier than anyone else in her family, and at a certain point she decided to prioritize herself. It's quite wise beyond her years, even if the jarring cut to credits can draw out a negative knee-jerk response when you first watch it. (My own first thought: So screw her family then?)

In his interview with Rolling Stone, Esmail compares Rose's obsession with Friends to the media preferences we all fell into in the early days of the pandemic, citing Tiger King specifically. "As silly as that show is, I love that we as a community dropped our differences to engage with this story and to laugh with it and talk about it. I just found that very human." he told the outlet. "So when I was constructing this story, I felt that throughout all this bleakness, to have this character, Rose, escape into something comfortable—I thought that was just something that felt like a kind of universal touchstone."

Quinci LeGardye
Contributing Culture Editor

Quinci LeGardye is a Contributing Culture Editor who covers TV, movies, Korean entertainment, books, and pop culture. When she isn’t writing or checking Twitter, she’s probably watching the latest K-drama or giving a concert performance in her car.