Here’s What the Deer Symbolize in Leave the World Behind

Here’s What the Deer Symbolize in Leave the World Behind

preview for Leave the World Behind – trailer (Netflix)

Leave the World Behind is a disaster movie unlike any other. Focusing on two families who find themselves thrown together during a not-entirely-defined national crisis, the film—based on Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel—focuses more on the tensions and paranoia that arise between Amanda and Clay (Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke) and G.H. and Ruth (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la Herrold) as they face the possibility of a doomsday scenario.

One of the creepier elements of the original novel was the presence of the deer, who begin appearing out of the woods early on in the narrative and continue to make their presence known as the characters’ fears escalate. A particularly evocative passage zooms out from the two families’ perspective and up into the sky, revealing just how many deer are emerging from the wild and gathering on the edge of the manmade towns and villages.

These symbols of the natural world encroaching on the previously orderly lives of G.H., Ruth, Amanda, Clay, and their children Archie and Rose could be said to represent their spiralling loss of control over their circumstances, and the worsening uncertainty of what this new world might look like. Transposed from the page to the screen, it makes for an unsettling visual.

“Deer are peaceful creatures,” director Sam Esmail explains. “To turn that sweet image into now this sort of ominous, menacing, almost warning — I thought was really interesting. That’s the trick about this movie. We always tried to take the things that we never really considered a threat and then turn it around on them.”

leave the world behind


Charlie Evans, who plays Archie, believes that the deer are a visual metaphor for “the connection to the natural world, how we treat it, how it moves around us, and how we don’t really think about it as carefully as we should.” Meanwhile Myha’la Herrold, who plays Ruth, told Today she thinks that they’re “indicative of what’s going on with the power and the lack of movement of people.”

While the majestic and deeply sinister deer might look real on screen, Esmail revealed to Tudum that they are all digital creations.

“It’s a testament to Chris Harvey, my VFX supervisor; Dione [Wood], my VFX producer; and Alec [Hart], who’s on the VFX team,” he said. “They knew that we wanted to make the deer feel as real as possible, and they were on set. We had mock-ups there so that the actors had something to play off of, and we made sure that the lighting on the fur [was] as accurate as possible.”

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Philip Ellis

Philip Ellis is News Editor at Men’s Health, covering fitness, pop culture, sex and relationships, and LGBTQ+ issues. His work has appeared in GQ, Teen Vogue, Man Repeller and MTV, and he is the author of Love & Other Scams.

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