Julia January 31, 2017
If Julia (Tilda Swinton) were stranded on a desert island and there were a pair of signs reading “rescue” and “continue self-destructing habits” directing her toward opposite ends of the isle, she’d go with the latter. Because Julia, a floozy of a redhead and a shameless pathological liar, is a disaster. She’s cranky, messy, and foul. She talks just to talk, fucks just to fuck. She hits up her local bar every night, guzzling liquor until she reaches euphoric blackout. She brings a man home with such recurrence, too — doesn’t matter who it is. The cycle continues without end.
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 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 headed 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 inhibition 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 to be. A