The World Behind You (2023)

Is “The World Behind You” a j’accuse to the lack of filters of contemporary society or the last cry for help?

I f*cking hate people”: what better way to open the analysis than “The world behind you” (Leave the World Behind), apocalyptic thriller produced and distributed by Netflix from 8 December 2023, film adaptation ofnovel of the same name published in 2020 by Rumaan Alam (among the executive producers of the film itself)? The first dialogue of the film ends with the first of many declarations of limited tolerance towards the rest of humanity, but a product of notable quality opens up, both in terms of form and content, which deserves to be explored in depth beyond the superficial stereotype of platform marketed. Divided into 5 parts, with 5 main protagonists and very few other faces – a fully centered choice, as the same impact distributed across multiple personalities and psychologies would have been guiltily diluted – the considerations on “The world behind you” cannot ignore the same penta-division .

First some assumptions valid for all sections of the film Sam Esmail: the soundtrack – between Joey Bada$$ in the opening credits and Lil Yachty in the closing credits, passing through Blackstreet and Next – constantly modulates between the rhythmic and the anxiolytic, generating apprehension even when the shot does not yet suggest the arrival of the turning point point; there photography – also thanks to the massive use of drones and wide-angle cameras – always manages to be balanced and symmetrical with respect to the center of gravity of the image, thanks to an alternatively rotary movement or perpendicular cuts which restore the sensation of not abandoning even for an instant the full control of the gaze on the action, as if he were Big Brother incapable of missing any detail of the scene.


PART I – The House (La casa) The characters played by Ethan Hawke e Julia Roberts (also producer of “The world behind you”) I am a man university professor of Communication and Media and a woman responsible for relations with clients of an advertising agency: husband and wife who should use the tools of dialogue and of verbal confrontation, but who are the first to communicate the incommunicability that the company has imposed on itself as a characteristic trait. She is aware that her husband secretly smokes, he would like to stimulate the relationship also from a sexual point of view but finds her constantly rejected.

Two people who should be imbued with connections between men but who only hope to distance themselves, to burn bridges not to categorically reject the status quo but only to enjoy it on their own island. We hate people but the first thought when we arrive at the rented house is the WiFi password, we are more committed to showing life from a camera instead of actually living it, leaving the knowledge and growth of our children to rhetorical questions, of which we do not expect not even having answers.

The meeting with the second family unit, made up of a father who is a financial consultant for the New York Philharmonic and a daughter who is still undecided about which career to pursue after completing her university studies, has an undoubted effect: both couples are not willing to welcome and accept the presence of the other, we would like to trust people but we do not use the tools to put a filter and understand other people’s positions. You don’t have time to get to know and understand each other and you immediately come to a conflict not because you don’t have the possibility or the intellectual capacity to do so but because you don’t have the desire or intention to make any effort. The latent perception of not being believed immediately places a wall against a wall, a barrier, a preventive doubt for which it would be sufficient to take a step back when, instead, one persists in putting one’s toe in front of the others;

PART II – The Curve (La Curva) Archie and especially Rose, the children of the Hawke-Roberts couple, cannot help but embody all the skepticism transmitted by adults. From the first scenes the two – he is 16 years old, she is 13 – base their interaction with their parents on an anxiety never really expressed for a still unknown world, for which the requests receive replies so superficial as to sound fake, in which everything is kept for oneself, expecting others to understand and interpret is more convenient than insisting on obtaining satisfactory references. It is certainly an easy approach, less tiring, but which makes the whole system labile and fragile.

Thus all the characters hide parts of their personal experiences – keeping them in the dark from the knowledge of others, who could thus help resolve the situation – not because they are jealous of keeping their secrets, but because they have the right to believe that any interlocutor does not have the dignity to absorb their words. The mechanism, however, is reciprocal: questions can only be asked to those who are known to be able to solve the question, no one wants to find out on their own but aims to automatically find the ready meal. As summarized by Rose – the youngest but, throughout the entire “The World Behind Me”, the most interesting to listen to precisely because the least “grown-up” and informed – “I don’t want to wait any longer” is the mantra, whether we are referring to the ending of a TV series like Friends or the husband’s return from visiting the neighbors;

PART III – The Noise Leaving aside the translation of some American terms improperly rendered into Italian – the film remains very enjoyable even in the original language with subtitles, the lines do not have too complex a vocabulary – it is precisely the “deafening silence” of the night spent in their respective bedrooms to fill the void of contacts, which from complexes desertify and skeletonize into complicated ones, from entanglements they become superficial adhesions. Most of all it highlights the comparison between the most ideologically distant characters of all, the wife and the daughter: “You always think you know what you’re talking about, don’t you?”.

We simply want to know what others think just to confirm what we think we know. Even after the discovery of the flyers with Arabic writings and the massive collision of the fully self-driving Teslas on the ExpressWay that connects Long Island to New York, the failure to emerge of any depth allows us not to notice anything, to let events pass by more inexplicable and traumatizing as if nothing had happened. Archie, from this point of view, is the epitome of the flattening of expressed values: it is never deliberately clear when he is serious in the cynicism with which he addresses his little sister or how much he intends to joke but is unable to express it ;

PART IV – The Flood The first glimmer of acceptance of a different point of view with respect to the initial prejudices occurs when the temporary separation of the two families mixes up the relationships: those who first welcomed now find themselves on the other side, those who first asked for help now return the favor, not without claiming to have done so by making it weigh less. Even within apparently parallel realities, points of contact exist: Julia Roberts’ characters and Mahershala Ali are found slightly drunk dancing in the basement, Ethan Hawke’s and Myha’la smoking a marijuana electronic cigarette by the pool. Illusions and disillusionments about numbers and people come to the surface, errors due to prejudicial beliefs instead of the active search for the truth.

Hawke’s joke pierces the Veil of Maya that every human being seems to have wrapped around their bubble in contemporary times: “He needed help. And I left it there!”. It is a first step, which transforms “The world behind you” from a J’accuse to a cry for desperate help launched perhaps just in time. In the global community, individual encirclement complexes still prevail, the feeling that everyone has it out for you, the vision of something rotten even where it is only imaginary: when Myha’la’s character confides in her father “I’m sure the husband wants to fuck me. He didn’t say or do anything, he would never do it, but if only he had the courage…“e di”Don’t trust anyone, especially white people” it must be recognized that yes, they are sentences pronounced by a young black American, but absolutely not supported by any detail included in the script and screenplay.

PART V – The Last One (Arrivals and Departures) Precisely because the most distant at first sight, the contradictions that not even “The World Behind You” claims to resolve but at least put in the foreground in order to have to discuss them and force a reaction – whatever it may be – in the viewer could not be rendered better than in a dialogue between Julia Roberts and Myha’la.

The actress, among others, of Pretty Woman e Homecoming (series, currently available on Amazon Prime, in which it was directed for the first time by Sam Esmail), notes with bitterness the cruelty of the existence lived so far: “My job is to study people and figure out how to lie to them to make them buy things they don’t want […] We all screw each other over, all the time, without even realizing it […] We know it’s all a lie, we screw ourselves too, we think we can get away with it but it’s just an illusion to help us ignore how horrible we are”. The awareness has matured but not yet rooted, otherwise the girl would not respond “I almost never agree but now yes, I agree”, with the constant and non-random exclusive use of the first person singular instead of the second, the “I agree” instead of “You’re right”, in the selfish and stingy greed of having the first, last and only word in everything.

Equally non-random is the ending, dedicated exclusively – never more than now, clearly, SPOILER ALERT – to the character of Rose: she will be the only one who has found not only salvation but also happiness, managing to see the final episode of Friends (“The Last One”, S10E17) and discover whether Rachel and Ross will get back together or not in the anti-atomic bunker of the neighbors, after having risked taking a step outside of their own sphere of certainties and not having limited themselves to “protect your own” propagated by the ultra-conservative character played by Kevin Bacon.

If the only figure whose state of mind we will be sure of during the closing credits is that of a happy and fulfilled little girl, in her infinitesimal small way, hopefully Sam Esmail’s message in a bottle will soon reach some welcoming hands. Or, at least, be able to grasp the symbolism of the painting placed on the wall immediately to the left of the basement stairs [la base è “La sedia di Gauguin” di van Gogh, simbolo di cultura e ambizione, dipinta per esorcizzare il senso di smarrimento generato dalla partenza di un artista e amico con cui si aveva avuto scontri accesi, vòlto a trovare un punto di contatto almeno virtuale per compensare una distanza fisica, una continuità di fondo nonostante una separazione esteriore; la fascia inferiore della tela è occupata dall’incipit di una poesia di Anne Lamott, autrice statunitense contemporanea: “Hope begins in the dark”, “La Speranza nasce nelle tenebre].

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