Julia (2008)

Julia first published by Film4

Summary: French director Erick Zonca has crafted a tale of alcoholism, abduction and alienation in L.A. and across the border. Tilda Swinton stars.  

Review: Make a movie about an aging alcoholic, and you ought to have a tragic drama, like Le Feu Follet (1963), Trees Lounge (1996) or Factotum (2005). Insert such a washout character into the middle of a kidnapping scam, and you ought to have a comedy of errors (Fargo, Burn After Reading). Yet while Julia, the latest film by Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels), is certainly focused upon a desperate dipsomaniac turned child abductor, it is not so easy to pin down. One thing is for sure, though: with very few laughs to show, this is no Coens-style comic caper. 

Thanks to her quick wits and compulsive lying, Julia (Tilda Swinton) has been just about getting away with her drinking problem for years – but now, at forty, with her schtick starting to pall, her job lost and her rent unpaid, a sense of desperation is setting in. Sent by her old friend (and one-time alcoholic) Mitch (Saul Rubinek) to an AA meeting, Julia meets Elena (Kate del Castillo), a younger, if similarly desperate Mexican woman who turns to Julia for help in a clearly deluded scheme to kidnap her own estranged son, eight-year-old Tom (Aidan Gould). Smelling money, Julia agrees, even if she has her own angle on the plot. When things inevitably spin out of control, Julia finds herself doing what she always does – drinking on the job, thinking on her feet, and burning all her bridges. She does not, however, quite realise what effect Tom’s continued presence will have on her.       

Asked in one scene what her name is, Julia replies ‘Gloria’ – and sure enough, it is easy to see shades of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) in this older dame growing ever more protective of the boy in her care. Zonca’s character, however, does not so much rescue her young ward from danger as place him in the line of fire herself, abducting him at gunpoint, repeatedly drugging him, and at one point even abandoning him in the desert, before ultimately exposing him to criminals whose desperation and venality are equal only to her own. She is a difficult character to like, yet Swinton, in a wonderfully honest performance, presents her, flaws and all, as a vulnerable and helpless figure, always worthy of our attention and often of our sympathies. At a certain level Julia believes her own lies, and Swinton makes us want to believe them as well.        

If Julia opens with a series of sequences in which its titular protagonist is shown waking up from long night’s partying, unsure where exactly she is, how she got there, or where there is to go next, then by the time the film has ended that is exactly the way the viewer will feel too. Zonca lulls us into a false sense of familiarity with his unflinching (if non-judgemental) portrait of a falling woman, before unexpectedly shifting the location, twisting the plot and swinging the mood beyond all recognition, until finally we are, like Julia herself, left marooned between the roads that are more usually travelled. 

Here the borders crossed are generic as much as geographic, with Julia proving to be all at once a dramatic character study, a downbeat social drama and a riveting crime thriller. Even as the film celebrates Julia for her resilience, ingenuity and emerging sense of responsibility, at the same time it shows her spiralling ever further downwards (and taking an innocent young boy along with her) due to her own ill-conceived and self-destructive actions, mostly inspired by the bottom end of a vodka bottle.

It’s compelling all right – and despite the somewhat forbidding duration (just shy of two-and-a-half hours), Swinton makes Julia mesmerising to watch throughout, while Zonca’s furious handling of tension ensures that there are always plenty of external threats to match the internal ones posed by Julia herself. It all culminates in a climax of unbearable suspense, a final, deluded line that rather brilliantly sidesteps the cliché of a neatly sentimental conclusion, and then the perfect Barry Adamson song over the closing credits to leave the right tone of noirish delirium. When it is all over, you will need a stiff drink.      

Verdict: Amoral, at times brutal, and full of surprises, Erick Zonca’s tale of alcoholism and abduction revives the ’70s Golden Age of character-driven dramas.    

Anton Bitel