LOS ANGELES – “Julia” requires an enormous amount from its star and of its audience.
Tilda Swinton gives a brash and unflinching performance as a lonely, self-destructive alcoholic who makes some questionable choices, to say the least. And in doing so, she and French writer-director Erick Zonca ask that we go along and stick by her side, every treacherous step of the way.
It’s tough to do. There’s not much to root for or even vaguely like in Swinton’s Julia Harris, a blowzy drunk who can be fun and flirty but who invariably wakes up the next morning with cotton mouth and a pounding headache. Usually her tacky dress is wrapped around her body in some contorted fashion and her garish eye makeup is smeared. Often she doesn’t know where she is or the name of the person lying next to her. Nevertheless, she’ll start the cycle all over again with a vodka tonic as soon as she can get herself to a bar.
If you’ve ever indulged with such reckless abandon – even a couple of times in college – you may find yourself sympathizing on some level. Regardless, you’re riveted, and not just for the train-wreck factor. Versatile as ever, Swinton pulls you in and keeps you wondering what false move she’ll make next. As Julia, she lies and manipulates to keep her head above water. There may be some glimmers of humanity hidden beneath her boozy veneer, but they’re hard to find.
That’s why the inclusion of her ex-lover, Nick (Canadian actor Saul Rubinek), is so crucial to the film. (Zonca wrote the script with Aude Py.) He sees something redeeming in her – or at least he knows it was there once – and because he’s such a decent guy himself, he makes it easier for us to accept her. The moving, tough-love speech he gives her could have been melodramatic; instead, it’s a much-needed splash in the face with ice cold water.
It takes a lot more than that, though, for Julia to realize she needs to clean up her act.
First, she gets recruited into an insane scheme by Elena (Kate del Castillo), a jittery Mexican woman she meets at one of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she reluctantly and sporadically attends. Elena offers to pay Julia $50,000 to kidnap her eight-year-old son, Tom (Aidan Gould), from the care of his wealthy industrialist grandfather. Then she wants Julia to take the boy to Mexico, where she plans to start a new life with him.
The average person would immediately run away in the opposite direction. Having just been fired from her job because of her drinking problem, Julia needs the money, and so she says yes. But being unstable herself and not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, she tries to upend the plan with one of her own. The way she treats the boy pushes our limits of tolerating her; he responds not with precociousness but with palpable fear.
And this isn’t even where things get really ugly yet.
Zonca captures Julia’s desperation and her seat-of-her-pants decision making with camerawork that reflects her increasingly frantic state. (He’s clearly been inspired by John Cassavetes and his tale of a woman on the run with a young boy, 1980’s “Gloria.”)
Just because that precedent exists, though, doesn’t mean you know where the film is going. Zonca takes Julia, and “Julia,” to places you’d never expect – some of them believable, some not so much, but at least they’re never boring. Three stars out of four.