Spoiler alert: As you might expect from the headline, this article is about the ending of the film Tully. If you haven’t seen it, don’t read further.
At first blush, Tully seems like a defiantly low-concept dramedy. Directed by Jason Reitman and scripted by Diablo Cody, the film tracks exhausted mom Marlo (Charlize Theron), who was already struggling to handle two kids and begins to lose her tether after the birth of her third. Salvation arrives in the form of night nurse Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a sweet, bohemian 20-something who takes care of the baby when Marlo needs to catch up on sleep. Eventually, Tully starts to take care of Marlo, too: She’s a sounding board for Marlo’s frustrations about where her life has gone, and Tully has so much positivity to spare that her outlook on life begins to improve Marlo’s.
That would be enough of a plot to sustain this well-written film, but the third act throws us a curveball: Tully’s a Tyler Durden! The night nurse was never really there; instead, Tully was the manifestation of Marlo’s younger self, envisioned in exhaustion. It’s the rare twist ending that actually deepens the themes of the movie instead of serving as a hollow trick. As you go back over the scenes you’ve watched, seeing them through this new lens, you realize that Marlo was dealing with so much more than she had let on: In addition to the fatigue and fear she’s feeling as a mother, she’s been struggling to reconcile the carefree girl she used to be with the woman she’s become.
Recently in Los Angeles, Theron and Davis sat down with Vulture to discuss the twist, and how much it mattered to them.
Did you know the conceit going in?
Charlize Theron: We knew. It was written with that intent: Diablo called Jason up and said, “What if you were going through something really hard in your life, and your younger self could come rescue you?” That was the first kernel that this came from. There were scenes that we did that were from Marlo’s perspective, but if you shot this movie from a different angle, it really would be the story of Marlo’s younger self walking into this house and wondering, “Who did I become? Who did I marry? What are my kids like? Am I happy?”
Mackenzie Davis: When you say it like that, I get tears in my eyes. From Marlo’s perspective, she’s fucking tired and exhausted and not getting enough help, but from Tully’s perspective, she’s like, “Everything turned out okay! This is cool, I have these kids who love me and I made a house and a family.” I don’t think the movie’s about putting an unrealistically rosy spin on what is a hard situation, but it’s nice to see what you have from a different perspective.
That’s one of the things I found most poignant about the twist. Marlo isn’t happy with the state of her life, but Tully is so enamored with what Marlo has, and not at all judgmental.
Theron: And I love that, because it so easily could have been Tully saying, “I’m so disappointed in you.”
Davis: I think there’s also something really nice that I hadn’t thought of until just now, which is having the space to be disappointed even if things are good. It’s about asking yourself, Have I done enough drugs? Have I slept with enough people? Have I done all the things I wanted to do? Maybe for a moment, you’ll feel a pang of regret, but that’s okay. If you don’t process all of that, you can build this myth for yourself where you’ve missed out on something.
Theron: The grass is always greener on the other side.
Even before the twist, I was moved to see so many scenes with a female character simply taking care of another female character. It made me realize how rare that is in the movies, and then the twist deepens it, because it’s about self-care.
Theron: We talked about that a lot. I have found people watching the trailer going, “So what happens? Does the nanny kill you?” No, she actually rescues me. We have been so inundated with those ideas that a woman can’t care for another woman, and that’s so sad.
Davis: There’s something that does feel new about it. It’s interesting to see a story about love that isn’t about sexual love — it’s about people being kind to each other. That was some of the appeal of Elena Ferrante’s books, that all of a sudden you were like, “Oh, this is just a story about two best friends and how intense it is to have a lifelong friendship with another girl.” I mean, tons of shit happens in those novels, but even in the first one, it’s really about the tiny nuances of a friendship and how interesting that can be when you treat it with the respect of a Jason Bourne movie.
Theron: For a lot of women, their first love is their best friend, and I think we don’t talk about that enough. There’s this idea that women can’t get along and have to be in competition with each other, and I wonder how much of that has just been placed out there recklessly without any thought, because it’s not the truth. I mean, even in this industry, you do these press junkets and people ask you, “Who are you in competition with? Who’s in your way?”
People actually ask you that?
Theron: I get shit like that all the time!
Theron: All the time. It’s so strange to me.
Marlo looks back and she can’t quite recognize the path that led to her life. As actresses, I wonder if you can relate to that, since a single job can send your life and career in a different direction.
Davis: I do think so. I moved to Los Angeles two years ago and sometimes I wake up and I’m like, “What? When did I do that?” I know it happened — we even bought a sofa — but I don’t remember making the actual decision to do it. There’s so much of that, where you move fast in your life and keep making decisions and walking through open doors. It can be jarring to realize where it brought you.
To prepare for a role, actors will sometimes develop a backstory for their character, but what is it like to actually play scenes opposite the living manifestation of your character’s backstory?
Theron: A lot of my performance was very much informed by Mackenzie’s choices. It made me better, and I’m so grateful for it.
Davis: Initially, I really wanted to mimic some of Charlize’s mannerisms and find gestures that we could share, but Jason rightfully suggested against all of that. There’s enough information in the story, and it’s nicer not to treat it as a mystery where you go, “Wait a second…”
Theron: Audiences are smarter than I think we make them out to be. I think sometimes we over-explain things, and we realized that if we started winking at the twist, people would become suspicious. Marlo had to find herself in kind of a surreal state with Tully at all times, or else you’d think, “Who is this pure? Who is this hopeful?”
Have you watched Tully with an audience yet, to see how they respond to the twist?
Theron: I have, and it’s really great. Before we locked picture, I watched it with a couple of smaller audiences, and then I saw it just recently at the Castro in San Francisco, and that was a magical experience. I had to go up and do a Q&A after and I was a fucking mess! This movie just gets me, every single time, even just talking about it! Look, I’m so fucking cynical, but this movie just destroys that part of me. It sounds so cheesy to talk about it that way because I’m in it, but I feel a lot when I watch this movie.
What is that a testament to?
Theron: I think so much of this story feels so familiar and personal to me. It’s very much like my life, although not in an on-the-nose way. It’s just so nice to watch something and not feel alone in my journey as a parent.