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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Julia (2009)

* * * 1/2

Director: Erick Zonca
Starring: Tilda Swinton

What the movie world needs is more Tilda Swinton and if you require proof of that I highly recommend watching Julia. In it she renders a tour de force performance as an utterly amoral alcholic who keeps stumbling from bad to worse in a film that will keep you guessing right up to the very end. How this performance slipped through the cracks, I do not know; it explodes in front of you like a grenade (and I mean that in the best possible way).

Swinton stars as Julia, a forty-something woman who can't end a night without copious amounts of booze and a random guy to wake up with in the morning, sometimes in a bed, sometimes in the back of a car. Her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) wants to help her get her life together (though she herself seems indifferent, at best, to such a prospect) and insists on her going to A.A. meetings even though she gets nothing from them and will make no effort to abstain from drinking. At one of these meetings she's approached by Elena (Kate del Castillo), who wants to recruit her in a kidnapping plot. The person to be kidnapped is Elena's son Thomas (Aidan Gould), whom she hasn't seen in a number of years because her late husband's wealthy father has kept him from her. She offers Julia fifty thousand dollars for her help, which will only involve driving the getaway car. There are two things that ought to be understood about these characters. One, to anyone who isn't totally messed up themselves, Elena would seem a bit... off. Two, to anyone with even a lick of sense, Julia seems like the kind of person who would accept your offer of fifty thousand dollars and then double cross you to get more.

Julia does eventually raise the stakes from fifty thousand to two million, though by then Elena is well out of the picture. Julia takes off with Thomas, hiding out with him in a motel until her sloppiness (being drunk almost all the time can cause that) catches up to her and forces her to flee, hiding out with Thomas in the desert. After a first attempt at collecting the ransom goes awry, she escapes with Thomas into Mexico in a scene that would seem absurd if the film itself weren't so engrossing. But, then, you could say that about a lot of the twists in Julia.

It's typical in a film like this, of the on-the-run-with-a-kid subgenre of crime movies, that the kidnapper and the kidnapped will develop a friendship and affection for each other. That's not strictly true here, though it isn't entirely false either. Julia spends quite a bit of time terrorizing Thomas, holding a gun to his head, keeping him tied up, and drugging him with tranquilizers all while wearing a black mask. She's sober at this point (more or less) and when she starts drinking again she becomes a little less volatile and a lot less careful, forgetting to put on the mask when she goes to check on him, bound and gagged in the shower where she'd left him several hours earlier. Her first words to him? "So I guess you're mad at me." This kind of casually dark hilarity will be repeated later, after Julia spins a story that paints her as a friend of Elena's and therefore a friend of Thomas' and he points out that she put a gun to his head. "Are you shot?" she asks incredulously, as if the lack of bullet holes totally exonerates her for having terrified him. That Swinton can pull this off after being so utterly frightening in the first part of the film is amazing and aided by the way the film shifts the relationship between Julia and Thomas. After runing away to the desert, Thomas' suspicions that Julia is kind of an idiot and doesn't know what she's doing seem to be confirmed, making him less afraid of her and making the audience less afraid of her as well. That doesn't make her a good person, though, or one devoid of venom, as the plot yet to unfold proves.

I don't know that many actors could do what Swinton does in this film. For one thing, she has the ability to express Julia's growing panic to the audience while still making it believable that the characters with whom she's interacting aren't catching on. For another, she approaches the character without vanity and is willing to let herself look bad (and behave worse) because it's what the character requires. She seems real - intense and totally messed up, yes, but believably so. The plot itself occassionally requires some suspension of disbelief, but Swinton makes you believe that Julia walked right off the street and in front of a camera.


M. Carter @ the Movies said...

Awesome, Flick Chick! I just reviewed this on my blog and raved about Tilda roughly as much as you did!

She was astounding in "Julia." She astounds me in general because she's so fearless in the parts she takes. It's like she has no vanity; she only does what interests her, and that makes her a fantastic actress.

I particularly love this film's ending because we don't know that she's changed. Maybe it's just me, but I find it refreshing when there are loose ends and people don't magically become angels.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Is it me or does Tilda Swinton look like Eric Stoltz?

Norma Desmond said...

@M. Carter: I saw that! One of the things that's so fascinating about the character is that even at the end, with so much at stake, she's still scheming and trying to come out on top rather than just alive.

@The Floating Red Couch: All I see at this point is Conan O'Brien.