The Twist Ending of 'Tully' Asks You to Rethink Everything You've Seen

Tully movie
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Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Tully, and discusses the ending of the movie in detail. 

The trailers for Tully, the latest collaboration from the Juno writing and directing team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, promise a sharp-witted story about modern parenting. We see frustrated mother of three Marlo (Charlize Theron) struggling to care for her newborn baby and her two other young children until the arrival of a Mary Poppins-like night nanny named Tully (Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis) changes everything. The marketing suggests a narrative grounded in reality -- a tasteful dramedy of bad manners soundtracked by indie rock guitars and Cyndi Lauper songs -- but that's a bit of misdirection. 

Talking about a film like Tully, which relies on a significant third-act twist that reconfigures its meaning and calls into question the events leading up to it, can be challenging to both excited moviegoers trying to describe the movie to friends and critics tasked with summarizing its plot. How much should you reveal? Does the mere mention of a "big twist" create strange expectations that change how a viewer watches the film? Can the movie really be evaluated without digging into the particulars of its ending?

These questions typically surround films from genre directors like M. Night Shyamalan, but they're new for Reitman, who mostly specializes in modestly scaled character studies like Young Adult (which was also written by Cody and featured Theron as a self-destructive YA author), and Up in the Air, which starred George Clooney as a jet-setting businessman. Though both of those movies have rug-pulling surprises that occur in the third act, they don't have the the type of Fight Club-style reversal that Tully serves up. They weren't defined by their twists in the way Tully will likely be for many viewers. 

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Tully's big revelation is that the title character, who arrives after Marlo's wealthy brother Craig (Mark Duplass) recommends a night nanny service to her, is actually a figment of Marlo's imagination. More specifically, she's the younger version of Marlo herself. (Yes, like that goofy Bruce Willis movie Disney's The Kid.)

This element is kept hidden from the viewer for most of the runtime as we watch the relationship between Marlo and Tully blossom into an intimate friendship. In addition to providing much-needed childcare support and housekeeping assistance, the eerily aloof but kind-hearted Tully also becomes a confidant to Marlo, who speaks with her young companion with pointed candor about her anxieties, passions, and disappointments. During late-night hangout sessions, the two discuss Marlo's relationship with her body, her obsession with the Showtime reality show Gigolos, and her nonexistent sex life with her gamer husband Drew (Ron Livingston). No topic is off limits.

The actual twist arrives late in the film when Marlo and Tully take a trip into Brooklyn from their nameless suburban enclave for a wild night of drinking and revisiting Marlo's old haunts. After the two have a fight, in which Tully reveals that she'll be leaving the night-nanny gig earlier than expected, they drive back home intoxicated and exhausted. Almost colliding with oncoming traffic, Marlo crashes her car and sends it soaring into a body of water. We then see the car underwater and Marlo is alone. Tully is gone. Moments later, she reemerges as a mermaid, swimming to Marlo's rescue like a creature from a Guillermo Del Toro film. It's a surreal touch that Reitman telegraphs with foreshadowing underwater shots and an earlier clip from the Netflix kids series H20: Mermaid Adventures.

Marlo wakes up in a hospital, where her husband Drew reveals to the audience (via some exposition-y dialogue with an administrator) that "Tully" is actually Marlo's maiden name. During a conversation about Marlo's mental health, a doctor also tells Drew that Marlo is suffering from a lack of sleep. In the next series of scenes, it becomes clear that the movie isn't really about a magical, whimsical caregiver who arrives in the middle of the night to fix a family's problems. Instead, it's a mapping of Marlo's interior life, particularly the way she relates to and understands her younger self.

tully movie
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As this Vox article by psychiatrist Lauren M. Osborne suggests, Tully will likely be a source of controversy in mental health circles, on parenting blogs, and in the mainstream press during the coming months. (Cody's The United States of Tara, a Showtime series starring Toni Collette as a woman with a dissociative identity disorder, also explored similar thematic territory.) Tully's darkly humorous depiction of postpartum psychosis is not exactly subtle. Like A Beautiful Mind, 2001's Best Picture-winning biopic of mathematician of John Nash, the film dramatizes a real condition by engaging in some narrative sleight-of-hand.

In some ways, the contrived rug-pulling structure of the film undermines its greatest strength: the connection between Tully and Marlo. (Theron and Mackenzie are both great in very tricky roles.) By turning Tully into a Tyler Durden-like manifestation of Marlo's subconscious, the bond between the two characters becomes simpler, flattening out their dynamic. An odd scene where Tully dresses up in a waitress outfit and seduces Drew with Tully's help -- the only moment in the film when Tully interacts with a non-Marlo character -- gets smoothed over. It's an attempt to turn a mess into something tidy.

That tidiness extends to the film's closing moments, where we see Marlo and Drew sharing earbuds together while doing the dishes, an image of domestic tranquility. Instead of grappling with the fallout of Malo's crisis and asking tough questions about how she'll adjust to Tully's departure, Cody and Reitman rush ahead to scenes that suggest everything will be OK. It's a fairy tale ending that feels false. The less conventionally realistic idea of Tully swimming through the water, transformed into a mystical being out of a children's story, has more truth to it.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.