Julia'd seem more like a caricature of alcoholism if she weren't promptly fired from her job and on the brink of bankruptcy shortly after we first meet her. Perhaps there was a time during which she could handle herself and didn't have to escape into the throes of a drunken stupor to make herself feel something. But at this point in her middle-age is she far past the line that designates a return to normalcy. She needs to make a change, and fast.
But, alas, "Julia" is not a film about an alcoholic's recovery but an alcoholic's humorously pathetic digging of themselves deeper into a hole of trouble. That trouble, strange and scheming, finds our heroine at an AA meeting. And that trouble is Elena (Kate del Castillo), a mentally unstable woman fixated on getting custody of her young son, Tom (Aidan Gould). Being the loose cannon that she is, the authorities prefer the boy stay with his entrepreneur grandfather. Elena won't have it - she's incapable of recognizing her psychological unsteadiness and is determined to bring her child back with her to Mexico by any means necessary, even if those means turn her into a tabloid baiting kidnapper.
But after finding Julia passed out in someone's front yard in the earliest hours of the morning, Elena sees opportunity. She sees a desperate woman with a fondness for the bottle and with the tendency to keep her head on a little crooked. So she takes the woman to her apartment and does the unthinkable - asks if Julia, who can barely get through a minute of the day not under the influence, would agree to participate in her son's kidnapping for a hefty $50,000. At first, Julia scoffs at the idea. But some time later does she reach the epiphany that $50,000 is a sum dreams are made of and that being jobless, loveless, and aimless are ugly things to be and that pretending to be a smooth criminal instead of a loser might give her the sense of purpose she's been lacking for so long.
The rest of "Julia's" epic run time is dedicated to her maneuverings of messed-up criminality, which, to a certain degree, run with a humorous edge that make Swinton's protagonist the accidental screwball comedy heroine who never was. Co-writer and director Erick Zonca certainly pities the woman, but he pities her in such a way that makes it clear that he's more fascinated with her self-destruction than he is with attempting to empathize with her dejection.
Much of the film rings similarly to John Cassavetes' brilliant "Gloria" (1980), the street smart black comedy that saw grizzled moll Gena Rowlands protecting a young boy from the mob. Comparative are the central relationships of both films, but "Julia's" the more schematically intriguing of the two, if only because we trust Gloria's judgments and are confident in her ability to outsmart the baddies who chase after her and her unwilling sidekick around like rabid foxes. Julia, in the meantime, is an unpredictable embodiment of the downward spiral, and we find ourselves glued to the screen simply because seeing exactly where she and Tom are heading next is always a gamble. Zonca propels that masterfully nervous energy with all his might, harnessing the powers of Swinton's phenomenal performance and the shifty locales to guide the urgency he so painstakingly portrays.
As the title character, Swinton, of course, is exceptional. Arguably, this is her greatest performance. Taking her reputation as the most fearless leading lady in show business to startling heights, she strips herself of all inhibitions and leaves herself susceptible to our judgments for the movie's exhaustive two-and-a-half hours. Julia is a deplorable woman, but Swinton, so guileless, makes her Julia the kind of iconic cinematic figurehead who reminds one of Monica Vitti in "Red Desert" (1964), Faye Dunaway in "Network" (1976), and Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) - her role proves itself to be the serious actress's dream the minute it lifts off and we're carried away by its embodied looseness.
Gould, as the child Julia kidnaps, is pivotal, too, but "Julia" is Swinton's movie and maybe also Zonca's: both pursue a type of greatness difficult to achieve and yet attain it remarkably. Radical, blunt, and visceral, "Julia" exemplifies the limitless capacities of storytelling, acting, and directing. Whether you take to it is all a matter of how compelled you are by its eponymous heroine. Thankfully, Swinton and Zonca make it easy.
Julia Harris (Tilda Swinton) is an alcoholic who spends her nights partying at bars and nightclubs, only to wake up in bed next to strange men in the morning. She has very little self respect, and early in the film she loses her job. Her only friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) is an ex-alcoholic who helps her out financially, but threatens to cut her off after she is fired, unless she goes to AA meetings to get help for her drinking problem. It is at one of these meetings where she meets Elena, an unstable woman who asks Julia for help in a scheme to kidnap her 11-year-old son Tom (Aidan Gould), who was taken away from her to live with his wealthy grandfather.
In return for her help, Elena tells Julia that she can pay her $50,000, which she claims is a portion of a large inheritance she has received. After much contemplation, Julia decides that the money outweighs any consequence, but of course the half-baked plan goes from the start, and Julia ends up on the run in Mexico with Tom tied up in her trunk, and a gun that she struggles to figure out how to load.
At one point in the film, Mitch confronts Julia about her choice to go along with Elenaâ(TM)s plot to get her son back. He says, âWe all knew that Elenaâ(TM)s stupid, insane story about getting her kid back was bullshit, we heard it over and over again at meetings. Why is it that you were the only one that believed her?â? Julia is not a stupid woman, but a desperate one who gets in over her head. We do not like Julia, we do not sympathize with her, and we want her to pay the price for what she has done. But there are times when we somehow want her to get through this ordeal in one piece, and of course, we hope see poor Tom returned safely to his grandfather.
This is the first work I have seen by French filmmaker Erick Zonka, and it wonâ(TM)t be the last. His direction is sharp and revealing, as he stages some astonishing scenes of tension, urgency and realism. The script by Zonka and Aude Py is incredibly sincere, the cinematography by Yorick Le Saux is superb, and the U.S. and Mexico locations give the whole experience the stark authenticity that is requires. It is hard not to believe everything that happens to Julia in the film, as it all seems so inevitable based on the choices she makes. That is great screenwriting, and why Swinton likely decided to take on such a challenging and bitter role. There is an interesting story going on in âJulia,â? and the central character is caught in a web of debt and self-deceit, which she turns outward at the chance to get some money and to turn her luck and her life around.
Taking on this complex character, Swinton is a force beyond all categories. Aside from much of her earlier work, I have seen most of the films she has doneâ"I still need to find the time to watch âI Am Loveâ? and âBroken Flowersâ?â"and she has never once done something that is any less than interesting. This may be her finest performance yet, from what I have seen, and that is saying a lot. Consider her Oscar winning work in âMichael Clayton,â? her hilarious performance in âBurn After Readingâ? and her scene-stealing work in both âThe Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonâ? and the action-horror movie âConstantine.â? Connecting the dots, I think that we can expect more great things from Swinton.
Why this stunning, pulse-pounding film did not garner more attention when it was released in 2008 puzzles me, but should anyone feel uncertain about its accessibility, rest assured that âJuliaâ? is as approachable as any great mainstream thriller in recent years, and on top of that, it stars Tilda Swinton. You just canâ(TM)t go wrong.