Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! Due to time constraints and the fact that Halloween II wasn’t screened for critics, there is no new release I’m reviewing this week. Don’t worry, dear readers – I still have material with which you can angrily disagree. Last Monday I watched Julia, a thriller starring Tilda Swinton. The movie was never shown in DC-area theaters (the DVD released on the 18th)*. In many ways, Julia is the antithesis to Julie & Julia. According to Svetlana, the stories of Julia Child and her modern counterpart will leave you “as satisf[ied] as that lemon chiffon pie you’ve been craving all summer.” The story of Julia Harris, on the other hand, will uproot your nerves like a nihilistic bender. Both movies satisfy, only the latter leaves your head ringing.
Director/co-writer Erick Zonca deftly manipulates the audience in three clearly-defined acts. The first introduces Julia’s universe. She’s a miserable drunken cooze, the kind who verbally abuses her only friend (Saul Rubinek). Until Elena (Kate del Castillo) introduces herself at an AA meeting, Julia has no ambition beyond booze and anonymous sex. Elena wants Julia to help kidnap her estranged son. Anyone else would ignore Elena’s crazed rants, but once the would-be kidnapper mentions money, Julia cannot (or will not) disregard her mania. The second act is the kidnapping itself. She steals the kid from Elena, and negotiates a $2 million ransom with his grandfather. Meanwhile she ties the kid to a radiator, and thinks nothing of abandoning him in the desert. The final act is a descent into hell. Stuck in Tijuana with little money, Julia makes the mistake of chatting with the locals. When the kid disappears, bold lies becomes her only hope.
Without Tilda Swinton, the entire premise would absolutely collapse. Not even Meryl Streep has the balls make a character so unlikeable. From the first scene at an alcohol-soaked party, Swinton defines Julia with chaotic body language and obnoxious behavior. Her treatment of the kid is abhorrent, yet it’s impossible not to admire the force of will required to keep him alive. A bond between the two is inevitable, but don’t think Zonca treats the relationship like just every other case of Stockholm Syndrome. The pair stays true to their nature, and depend one another out of necessity. The Tijuana scenes are a terrific climax – Julia tells numerous sets of lies, each catered to a specific audience. Her capacity for invention is thrilling, especially as the situation gets increasingly nightmarish. The irony, of course, is her skillful manipulation is precisely what makes her so reprehensible for the first two acts. With a cinema verite approach, Zonca and channels John Cassavetes. Scenes develop organically, and never strain for affect. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux crucially films with abundant light that’s never warm. Everyone looks wrung out, and the locations are wrought with plausible danger.
I can understand why Julia never caught on. With a French production and limited exposure, it toured the festival circuit. A Variety critic called the movie exploitative, hurting its chances for wide distribution. It’s a shame audiences rely so much on likable protagonists. No decent person would ever get caught in Julia’s situation, which is why it’s easy quick to accept the ludicrous plot developments. After such brutal realism, a final redemptive scene is welcome and completely earned by Swinton’s tour-de-force performance. Even good thrillers are sometimes on autopilot, with little room for risk. Julia is alive and daring, with authentic characters in terrifying situations. Add it to your queue now, trust me.
* Julia will also be available for instant streaming on September 18. Cale, take note.