Erick Zonca’s Julia is a rare type of film, one that works largely in spite of its own script. Yes, it is twenty minutes too long, needlessly convoluted and it ends poorly, but through a combination of fantastic acting and some beautiful photography, it somehow finds a way to succeed. The film starts Tilda Swinton as a desperate southern California alcoholic who finds herself wrapped in a plot to kidnap the long-lost son of a casual acquaintance from his wealthy grandfather, but soon takes matters into her own hands in order to increase her ransom payment. The film is a reimagining of the 1980 John Cassavetes film Gloria. This has apparently made some people angry. These people have apparently forgotten that Cassavetes never really wanted to make Gloria, and that, while remakes are rarely good things, a very, very loose remake of one of his studio films is not the same as remaking The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Anyway, whereas Gloria was an amusing pastiche of seventies revenge and exploitation films, replacing Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson with a middle-aged Gena Rowlands, Julia is a far more serious and dramatic work. In fact, one could almost say it is too serious and too dramatic.
The script’s biggest flaw is that it uses Julia’s alcoholism as a crutch. Every contrivance and every mistake is simply explained by Julia grabbing her ever-present bottle of vodka. Zonca and editor Phillipe Kotlarski do their best with these moments, speeding them up and rapidly cutting away as soon as she is completely trashed, only showing the consequences the next day. It is in these unseen moments that Julia rationalizes her actions, and we only know this because of the immense strength of Swinton’s performance. In reality, these sequences lead Julia into a series of increasingly difficult situations, all of which exist just to make her life even worse. These mistakes grow larger throughout the film, culminating after she kidnaps the boy, Tom. They are forced to run, and end up in Tijuana, where the film starts vaguely moralizing on the problems facing Mexico. In doing so, the film shows every person in the country as either a criminal or as someone connected to criminals. Eventually, while Julia is passed out, a group of low-level thugs kidnap Tom (again). When Julia finds him, she says “this kind of thing happens all the time. It’s like a national pastime here.” I know Zonca is trying to make us sympathize for the people living in this situation, but I can’t help but see it as an unfunny, non-tongue-in-cheek version of Big Trouble In little China showing that every person of Asian descent in San Francisco has magic powers. As for the end of the film, I can’t talk about it without giving it away, but I will say that it is very simple and comes too abruptly, which is odd for a film that could have cut out most of its final 30 minutes.
That said, I should remind you that this is a positive review, largely due to the immense strength of Tilda Swinton’s performance. In recent years, Swinton’s fame has greatly increased following her Oscar win for Michael Clayton. Thankfully, unlike other popular, award-winning actresses, she has used her fame to land more challenging roles in better films, including Jim Jarmusch’s underseen The Limits Of Control and Bela Tarr’s great The Man From London. This continues that trend. There is enough power in every one of her movements to distract from all but the worst plot contrivances. Rather than her usual ice queen character that she so brilliantly parodied in Burn After Reading, this is a bold, emotional performance of the highest order. She portrays Julia as a confused and naïve drunk, someone who does not understand what has happened to her and seemingly bases her actions on what she sees on TV. We are never supposed to fully sympathize with Julia, but Swinton makes us care for her. The last film I can recall succeeding so much based on one performance was Capote. Even There Will Be Blood had some of the best cinematography and music in any film this decade, although that’s not to say it would have been anywhere near as brilliant without Daniel Day Lewis. I can say, with full certainty, that Julia would have been a bad film with a lesser actress. Thankfully, Swinton’s wasn’t the only noteworthy performance. Aiden Gould, who plays Tom, gives one of the better child performances in recent memory. Unlike most children in film who try to act old, he does not come across as false or unbelievable (the kid who plays the same role in Gloria gives one of worst child performances I’ve ever seen for this very reason). Tom is intelligent, maybe even more so than Julia, and he acts like you would expect a kid in that situation to act. Also of note is the performance of Kate Del Castillo as Elena, Julia’s friend and Tom’s mother. Elena is manic and unstable, but the film wisely leaves it ambiguous as to whether this is due to the loss of her son or something else. Del Castillo does a wonderful job of straddling that line, always moving and speaking quickly with an earnest sincerity that could go either way.
Considering the fact that the only scenes we get of Julia’s drunkenness are brief moments in a few bars and an extended club scene at the beginning, Zonca made the right decision in shooting this film like a bright, grainy hangover. The sun constantly pounds into the frame, beating down on Julia and the audience. Because of this, we get some sublime outdoor shots, especially during a sequence in which Julia and Tom hid out in the desert. Throughout the film, the camera does occasionally move in Cassavetes’ verite style, but this technique drops out as needed. Zonca cannot be absolved of all blame for the film’s flaws-he did co-write the script, and there are some pacing issues-but he must be commended for creating a work of occasional beauty and coaxing an absolutely brilliant performance out of the star. Julia is not for everyone; there are no truly sympathetic characters and the plot doesn’t work, but its strengths are more than enough to overcome the flaws. If nothing else, it should be seen for Swinton alone, because she really does give one of the best female performances of this decade.
Julia is rated “R” for pervasive language, some violent content and brief nudity.
Julia is now available on DVD, and will be playing a limited run at the Boston Museum Of Fine Art beginning December 9th
Directed by Erick Zonca; written by Erick Zonca, Michael Collins, Camille Natta and Aude Py; director of Photography, Yorick Le Saux; edited by Phillippe Kotlarski; music by Pollard Berrier and Darius Keeler; production designer, Francois-Renaud Labarthe; produced by Bertrand Faivre and Francois Marquis; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes.
With: Tilda Swinton (Julia), Saul Rubinek (Mitch), Kate del Castillo (Elena), Aiden Gould (Tom), Jude Ciccolella (Nick), Bruno Bichir (Diego) and Horacio Garcia Rojas (Santos).