‘Self Reliance’ Ending Explained & Film Summary: Did Tommy Win The Challenge?


Jake Johnson’s directorial debut, Self Reliance, is a product of the pandemic, and you will get every hint of it. At the center of his comedy thriller is Tommy Walcott (Jake Johnson), a lonely, bored middle-aged man with a dull job. His life had turned into a routine, and he did not have anything to look forward to anymore. Life became all the more meaningless when his long-term girlfriend broke up with him. Tommy went on to live with his mother, and he had given up on expecting anything remotely exciting in his life. One day, out of the blue, Andy Samberg invited him to his limousine and introduced him to a reality show on the dark web. For Tommy, meeting Andy was already a highlight, and he was thrilled about the chance to win a million dollars by competing, but there was a catch: he might not survive the show.

Spoiler Alert

What loophole did Tommy find?

Tommy found out from Andy Samberg that he would be filmed throughout the show, and the only challenge was that he had to survive for the next 30 days. As someone who was not content with his life, Tommy was up for the challenge. He did not mind being watched by strangers on the internet, and he was willing to risk everything for an adventure. Andy was quite surprised by Tommy’s choice; after all, how bored can a man be to agree to a death challenge? Tommy was dropped off at a secret location (a warehouse of sorts), where he was introduced to two elderly gentlemen who explained the rules of the challenge. Tommy was warned of the hunters—a group of assassins dedicated to making the lives of the participants difficult. According to the rules, the hunters were only allowed to attack the participants when they were alone, and that was the loophole Tommy was excited to explore. He realized that if he could convince all his friends and family to stick by his side, he would make it out of the challenge alive. Tommy was a little hesitant before finding out about this rule, but once he did, he immediately agreed to join.

What commentary does the film make?

Tommy gathered his family members to discuss the thrilling adventure, but it was impossible to make them believe the story. He did not have any proof, and his history of disillusionment made his case worse. They were convinced that it was another story Tommy came up with to keep his mind off his breakup. Tommy was disappointed in his family for not supporting him when he needed them the most, but of course, the entire thing was too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The audience, too, has no reason to trust Tommy entirely. The film unfolds through his perspective, and Tommy is definitely not a reliable narrator. Coming back to the story, Tommy decides to find a constant companion. After failing to convince his family and friends, he decided to pay for a companion. He ran into a homeless man at night, and he realized he was the perfect candidate to be his shadow. The man had nowhere to go and would happily give Tommy company for some food. This strange friendship is perhaps the most endearing aspect of Self Reliance. Two people from vastly different backgrounds and age groups are coming together to spend time as friends. While the death threat might have been the primary motivator behind the decision, the fear resulted in two human beings communicating with each other who would not have otherwise. The film comments on the loneliness attached to individualism and how the modern world has failed to nurture human relationships.

How did Maddy help Tommy in the challenge?

While discussing the entire story with his family, Tommy mentioned he had left a cryptic message on Craigslist. A woman contacted Tommy, disclosing that she, too, was a participant in the reality show. Tommy was skeptical at first, but knowing that someone else was living the same experience comforted him. He decided to meet the woman in question at a public place. Fearing that the hunters would attack, Maddy brought her mother along. Tommy started to trust Maddy and realized that they could spend the remaining days of the challenge together to keep the hunters away. The entire situation was quite awkward for Maddy’s mother to comprehend, but she decided to support her daughter nonetheless. When Maddy found out about Tommy’s past relationship, she decided it was time for him to get his answer.

Tommy had been in a relationship with Teresa for 23 years, and all of a sudden, he chose to leave her. She had recently given birth to her daughter, and Tommy’s family believed it had impacted him to a great extent. The challenge boosted Tommy’s confidence, and he decided to finally demand an answer from Teresa. As it turned out, their relationship had reached a stagnancy that Teresa was not comfortable with, and she decided it was time that she prioritized new experiences. When Tommy explained the game to Teresa, she did not believe him. She was convinced it was his way of coping with the breakup and the news of her becoming a mother. Maddy came to Tommy’s rescue and pretended to be his girlfriend, not that Teresa cared.

Was Maddy one of the participants?

Maddy and Tommy went to spend the evening having the best of time, and they decided to spend the night together. At midnight, the production crew interrupted Tommy’s sleep and informed him that he was not safe. In Self Reliance, the interruption of the contortionists, also known as the production team, along with a few tiny cameras, were the only times we were reminded of the show and the fact that it was all possibly real. There is barely any action in the film, as opposed to what you might have expected upon reading the plot. The team warning him about his surroundings is one such moment when he is reminded that there is another invisible reality to it. While there is a chance that it is all in Tommy’s head, there may be a group of strangers watching a comedy reality show where Tommy tries his best to run away from death. Tommy and Maddy end up at a motel, and they decide to spend the remaining days there.

Tommy admits that his motive for joining the show was to be around people, and meeting Maddy was definitely his highlight. Even though they had just met, he wanted to get to know her better, and she felt the same way about him. The next couple of days were smooth sailing, but that was until Tommy was contacted by another player. Maddy was hesitant upon meeting the participant, but Tommy believed it was their duty to help people living through the same experience. Upon meeting the participants, they found out that people on the dark web were watching the show for laughs. The participants were usually the lonely ones who had nothing much going on in life, and the ones trying to kill them were dressed funny. To think of it, the two hunters Tommy encountered were peculiar—one was a giant with an MJ suit on, while the other was dressed as Mario. The show was named “Delusions of Grandeur,” further making it impossible to say for certain what was real and what wasn’t.

The conversation left Maddy disturbed, and Tommy eventually found out that Maddy had never been a participant. She simply responded to the advertisement in the hopes of connecting with a fellow human being. She did not take the game aspect of it seriously, but that was until she met another contestant. It all started to feel a little too real and absurd at the same time. Maddy thought it was a role-playing date invite, and she was surprised to see Tommy convinced of the idea. Maybe that was when it hit her that he was just a delusional man faking stories, and the third participant was simply fanning the fire.

How did Tommy’s meeting with his father go?

Tommy’s father abandoned his family when Tommy was a little boy. He never cared to return, and for the longest time, Tommy imagined having a conversation with his father. The last thing Tommy expected was to meet him randomly in a limousine at midnight. The main motive of the challenge was to expose Tommy to situations that he was too afraid to face in his actual life. Tommy did not know how to react upon seeing his father after thirty years. He found out that his father now lived in Cleveland and was sober. As bizarre as it seemed, Wayne Brady reportedly flew his father on a private jet to meet Tommy. While his dad was interested in knowing how the family reacted to his sudden absence, Tommy was not ready to have the conversation yet. He was way too concerned about Maddy’s safety, and he was not sure if he was there yet to have a heart-to-heart conversation with his father all of a sudden. His father’s only advice to him was to not mess up the relationship he had with Maddy, as he did with his wife and children. The challenge was almost a blessing for Tommy, as it brought people he never expected back into his life. Even if the entire show was in his head, he at least found forgiveness in his heart for his father and realized that there was regret in his old man.

Did Tommy win the challenge?

Tommy’s family appointed an interventionist to put a stop to the madness. He was only four days away from winning the challenge, and he was not ready to be stopped by his family during the most crucial period. His family was surprised to learn that Tommy had finally confronted Teresa and even met his father after thirty years. It all seemed too good to be true, but Tommy spoke with complete conviction. The family found his truth hard to believe, and he decided to make a run for his life.

Tommy spent the rest of the night with his trusted companion, James, whose real name he found out was Walter. He realized that he never asked the stranger by the dumpster his name, and he assumed it to be James. Walter never cared to correct him, and finally, on a drunken night, he admitted the truth. The next morning, when Tommy woke up, Walter was no longer by his side. Tommy was all alone, and he realized that he was the safest living on the road with the rest of the homeless crowd. Tommy spent the remaining three days interacting with random strangers who considered the streets their temporary homes. On the last day, a production crew member walked up to him and asked him to hop in a limo, which would take him to the end of the challenge. 

Tommy and Andy Samberg met again, and this time, he offered Tommy the opportunity to walk away free and safe or to accept more danger but with a reward in the end. Tommy chose the latter, much to Andy’s surprise, and he was once again taken to the warehouse. As soon as he walked towards the warehouse, he was chased by hunters dressed in funny costumes. After managing to escape the deadly, sharp Samurai blades, Tommy screamed with exhilaration—he had won. He made it to the end, but there was no grand celebration. For a second, he wondered if it had all been in his head, but before the thought could settle, the spotlights turned on, and in came a bunch of people, along with the two elderly gentlemen who introduced Tommy to the challenge. After spending most of his life living in the shadow, the joy of dodging death and winning a game was strangely satisfying for Tommy. It was almost as if he had finally found a purpose for his life.

During Self Reliance‘s ending, Tommy won a million bucks, but it was apparently all in Danish Kroner, and he was to be paid in installments. But Tommy did not care about the intricacies; he was happy to know that he had won, and that was all that mattered. It could have all been in Tommy’s head had Wayne Brady not visited his family to confirm that the game was real. The film begins with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that goes on to say that the greatest accomplishment of any human being was to be themselves, even when the entire world tried to turn them into something completely different. To think of it, even though everyone around Tommy tried to convince him that he was being delusional, Tommy never once considered it to be so. He was resolute about winning the challenge instead of doubting his memory. Since it all did seem quite real in the end, it makes one wonder if the entire challenge was truly set around Tommy alone. Was there a group of people monitoring the lonely ones and trying to come up with a strange challenge to force them to socialize and live a little without their safety net to protect them? The film largely speaks about the bane of modern society, where people have forgotten the art of communication and how a little nudge can lead to life-altering experiences. It is also a commentary on reality shows where people indulge in the strangest activities to entertain their audience. Is there ever any realness to such shows, or is it simply designed in a way so that the result more often than not brings a sense of fulfillment to its audience? 

The challenge turned Tommy into a confident man who realized the importance of taking the first step towards happiness, and he did not shy away from trying his luck with Maddy once again. We also find out that Tommy stayed true to his words and now shares his apartment with Walter, who has become his best friend. In the most absurd way, Tommy’s life had drastically changed.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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