Julia (2008) – Not the kind of girl you’d take home to meet the parents…

julia1

I’ve never been a big fan of movies with just the character’s first name as a title – it creates so much expectation.  What is so special about this individual that I’m on first name terms with them before the opening credits roll?  I think – what will the trials and tribulations of Arthur, Annie, Alfie or Paul tell me about the world around me, or more importantly, the world within me?

So Arthur’s a rich pisshead; Annie’s an annoying ginger orphan; Alfie just wants to get his leg over with a bit of crumpet; and Paul is a slacker alien voiced by Seth Rogan.  Then I think – so what? Let’s watch something else instead.

Movies titles with just the surname fare slightly better – at least Bullitt sounds like a hard name, matching Steve McQueen’s inscrutable hero.  Perhaps it was Shakespeare who created such high expectations, naming some of his most famous plays after the eponymous character – Macbeth & Hamlet for example.  But the Bard could get away with it, a) because Macbeth & Hamlet are pretty cool names, and b) he was alright at creating memorable characters to match the anticipation generated by the title.

Julia gets away with it too.  The name itself is pretty mundane, and the film is based on another first-name-titled movie, John Cassavette’s Gloria; but it does feature an absolutely enormous central performance by Tilda Swinton.  In fact, if I could write a one-word movie review for Julia, borrowing the rather obnoxious exclamation mark from Oliver! – I would just write: TILDA!

Doing so, however, would be a disservice to director Erick Zonca (ZONCA!), who brings a fresh set of eyes to the whiskery off-shoot of the crime drama, the “Botched Kidnap” flick.  Swinton plays the titular character, an alcoholic burn-out who gets wrapped up in a kidnap caper, with predictably disastrous results.

The difference is, Zonca approaches the generic material with a such a hard-edged, unflinching European arthouse sensibility that the material almost feels like a new sub-genre.  Although the plot is formulaic, it is approached with such raw immediacy it feels like the type of bumbling real-life crime that you read in the sidelines of the newspaper, then nudge your mate and say: “Listen to this…”

Julia (Swinton) is a mess – she’s the wrong side of forty, but still acting like she’s twenty, partying, pounding back the booze, veering from one one night stand to another.  Heavy drinking turned to alcoholism long ago, and after she loses another job due to her debaucherous behaviour, her best friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) persuades her to attend an AA meeting.

At the meeting, she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo), apparently one of her neighbours.  After scooping Julia up off the pavement one night, Elena asks her to help with a scheme – she wants to kidnap her own son from his grandfather and do a runner to Mexico.  She offers Julia $50,000 for her time, which she declines.

Julia has other ideas.  She decides to snatch the kid anyway following Elena’s plan, then extort $2 million for herself.  Predictably, the plan goes awry and Julia ends up on the lam, crashing the border into Mexico.  There she comes up with a new plan and bonds with the child, Tom (Aidan Gould) while waiting for the ransom money to arrive with Mitch.  Unfortunately, she finds that there are more kidnappers in Tijuana than just herself…

Zonca observes this chain of events with a cool outsider’s view, making LA bars, seedy motels, scorched deserts and Mexican border towns seem like real, living places rather than stock locations in a crime thriller.

The plot is relatively straightforward, and the bulk of the generous running time is focused on Julia.  To put it politely, she is not the kind of girl you’d want to take home to mother, and when we first see her  she is guzzling drinks, laughing like a drain, and making some sloppy moves on a married guy, who almost reluctantly relents.

She hardly seems like the cool head you would involve in your shady caper, and even the kid recognises her outward flakiness:   “Then why did she choose someone like you with the gun?”.  However, Julia is an alcoholic, and like all indestructible alcoholics, she has a survival kit.

She is sneaky and spots an opportunity quickly; she is shameless and selfish – years of making sure she has enough money, somehow, for another drink means she has no qualms about looking after number one.  She is an accomplished liar after decades of deceiving everyone around her.  When things go wrong, she is practised at thinking on her feet and quickly re-calculating the odds that suit her best.

Tilda Swinton is magnificent as Julia.  On the surface, it seems a role very similar to Cate Blanchett’s all-conquering turn in Blue Jasmine.  Blanchett was brilliant, but it was a broad performance – although Jasmine never shut up, her facial expressions owed a debt of gratitude to the silent film actresses.

Swinton’s Julia is a more tightly wound performance, and it is a performance lacking any vanity – pushing fifty when the film was made, she is not afraid to let it all hang out and look a complete mess in order to fully inhabit the character.  Julia is one of cinema’s great anti-heroines; selfish, dishonest, venal, brazen, slutty, crude and eventually dangerous – but Swinton makes her a living, breathing mess.

The character she most reminded me of was Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, in that she only resorts to doing good after she has exhausted all other options.  Even her tongue flicking out when she wakes in another strange bed with dry mouth reminded me of Phil’s alarm clock, clicking over to 6am to signal the Sissyphian task of another day in Punxsatawney.

Julia’s case is a little more extreme than Phil’s – she needs to delve into kidnap, grand theft auto and eventually murder to snap her out of a self-destructive cycle of making bad decisions over and over again.  Like Connor’s final line in Groundhog Day, there is still some ambivalence come the final scene facing the Mexican kidnappers – is she protecting the kid because she has suddenly discovered some motherly instincts, or is she just protecting her prize?

Her last words can be taken at face value, but then you realise that she has lied to this child several times before, and was trying to skim something off the ransom money for herself even when things got critical.  Is it possible this degenerate schemer has really experienced a change of heart, or will there be another plan hatched after the credits have rolled?

Julia is far from perfect.  Despite running well over two hours, it never successfully negotiates the transition from violence and distrust between Julia and the boy to surrogate mother and dependent foster child.  Many critics were disturbed by earlier scenes where Julia verbally and physically abuses Tom, shoving him in the trunk of a car, drugging him and gaffer taping him to a radiator.  Critics can take most acts of violence in the name of cinematic art, but get a kid involved and you can feel the righteousness gusting off the page.

The transition seems rushed, and is not as rewarding as other examples of the “Disreputable/Dangerous Surrogate Parent Makes Good” sub-genre, such as the real-life father-daughter duo in Paper Moon; the suprisingly touching relationship between killer cyborg and juvenile delinquent in Terminator 2: Judgement Day; or the paedophilic undertones of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman’s relationship in Leon.

Some of the scenes accelerate to maximum intensity very, very quickly, and stay there for longer than is comfortable.  Most of the interaction between Julia and Elena are like this, with del Castillo obviously caught in an acting buzz and trying to match Swinton blow-for-blow, which is irritating to watch.  I was glad when Elena disappeared from the picture.

Overall though, Julia is two-and-a-bit hours of sleazy fun.  Julia is trouble, and I’m sure some of the guys reading this will know that type of trouble all too well; thankfully, due to Swinton’s magnetic performance, she is an irresistible screen character.  Just don’t invite her round for tea.

 

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About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 08/04/2014, in action, Comedy, Drama, Drinking, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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