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Julia. Tilda. Tilda. Julia.

October 3, 2009

Tilda Swinton.

Wait, let me say that again: Tilda. Swinton.

I’m sorry, I don’t think you heard me – TILDA SWINTON!

That’s the gist of my reaction when I reached the end of “Julia”, whose main heroine the film is named after is played by no other than Tilda Swinton.

Ok, I will stop saying her name now, but that hardly matters. It’s difficult to look at anything else when she’s on screen, and Swinton is in almost every frame of this movie. She inhabits it with a presence that is breathtaking. Very few other actors (and I use this term as gender-neutral) has her level of intensity. She doesn’t just act with her face or her eyes or her body language, she acts from right underneath her skin, everywhere. Whenever I watch her in a scene I always feel this ball of energy inside her that is emitting outwards through her pores, be it quietly, explosively or barely restrained, you can feel the ebbing of the current right underneath that pale surface and laser sharp stare, and that makes her unpredictable, and that makes her exciting.

And that makes the film that she is in exciting to watch.

Julia is a “raging alcoholic”, as so precisely put by Mitch (Saul Rubinek), a recovering alcoholic that is probably her only friend.  She is full of vices, alcohol being the worse but not the only. She can’t hold down a job. She drinks to the point of passing out every night. She sleeps with random men every night, usually as a result of the previous vice. She lies. And she is, not surprisingly, alone, probably due to all of the above.

Then one day, after walking out on an AA meeting, she meets a woman who is her neighbor – Elena (Kate del Castillo). Elena awkwardly but enthusiastically befriends her. Julia won’t have it. Then she wakes up one morning on Elena’s couch after a particularly rough night. Elena rescued her but not without an earnest plead – she wants Julia to help to kidnap her own son, who lives with his extremely rich grandfather that refused to let Elena see him.

Julia laughs the idea off as crazy at first listen. I’ll pay, Elena said. And then, as absurd as the idea still sounds, Julia begins to be tempted. This is the true sign of an addict – when logic and reason fail in the face of any prospect that will feed the addiction. Between swigs of alcohol, Julia puts on her tough face and somehow, with shaky hands and sweaty brows, kidnaps the child and embarks on a crazy but completely plausible journey that ends up in Tijuana, Mexico.

You know, the craziest part about this movie is that for following such an inept and troubled heroine that screws up almost everything she does for two and a half hours, it is so engaging. Of course it’s engaging, you say, because people love to watch train wrecks, that’s why we slow down when we pass car accidents at the side of highways. But that’s not it entirely. Julia is a mess, yes, but she’s not a complete trainwreck. She keeps bottles and flasks in her purse and take violent chugs in the bathroom. She’s barely functional and doesn’t plan ahead too much. But in moments of conflict and urgency – she pulls through. She’s the type of broad that you want on your side in a fight. She’s fast on her feet and a natural adaptor to her environment. She’s a survivor, basically, probably out of necessity through years of alcoholism. Ask most people and you’ll know: finding your way home after a severe night, dry-mouthed and bleary-eyed with no idea where you are, requires some on-the-spot thinking.

Swinton is simply splendid here. She always has been. “The Beach”, “Michael Clayton”, she easily steals scenes from even the handsomest of the leading men. She is so so good at teetering on the edge of sanity in her characterizations. In “Michael Clayton”, she was a ticking time bomb in her slick suits and tightly pulled back chignons. You can see the tension in her jaw, her lips, and the stiff way she walked. She was wound so tight that it’s only a matter of time before she snapped. Here, Swinton carries that same type of frantic energy and strained desperation, except less refined. Instead of talking her way out of a legal scandal, she is talking her way out of men with guns in Tijuana, which require a whole different set of skills. The funny thing is that with Swinton, you can tell the nuanced difference between these two characters. Frantic and desperate, a lawyer and a drunk, and she pulls each off clearly and precisely. That, in my books, is the sign of a good actor.

Erick Zonca is tough and honest in the way he runs this film. No bullshit. He takes care of the little details: the way Julia wakes up every morning after the previous night – notice how in most films the characters seem to bounce to consciousness after a night of sleeping in cars/grass/crap-places looking perfectly fresh and gorgeous, not a touch of makeup out of place, and they start talking right away. That’s not reality and Zonca knows it. He shows Julia trying to open her mouth and licks her dry lips, repeatedly. He shows how much efforts it takes her to sit up, to open her eyes, to pay attention to conversation. It’s honest and real and it gives integrity to the story, and that carries over to the rest of the film.

The casting was also done with a careful eye. None of the actors here are conventionally gorgeous in an obvious way. They look interesting, and they are interesting. The kid, Tom, is played by Aidan Gould, and he holds his ground in scenes opposite Swinton, particularly one where they genuinely show affection for each other one morning. Diego (Bruno Bichir), a Mexican that tries to seduce her in Tijuana, is slick, short and with a visible agenda. Yet when Julia goes for it, we understand her choice. None of the actors look like obvious movie stars. They look like people that you would see on the street, in those places, doing those kind of things. Realism in movies, a rarity.

“Julia” doesn’t have an obvious moral statement. But it’s also more than a simple action thriller. It’s fast, frantic, unpredictable, and utterly interesting. We see a woman spinning out of control and using every talent that she has, every fibre of her being, to try to live the life that she needs to live. It’s not about redemption to be a better person or to change, really. She’s not all that likable. And she does a lot of illegal and immoral things that you may not agree with. But in the end, you can’t say that she is a bad person. Did Julia suddenly “found” the goodness in her heart? Had a pang of morality? A wave of guilt? Nah. I think these things were already inside her. If she was really without morals, she wouldn’t have done what she did in the very last scene.

It comes down to choices, you know. The kind of person that we turn out to be. But it also comes down to what we came with, I think. None of us really know the true extent of our potential, both in good and bad. It takes trials of fire to burn it out of us. Sometimes, what is revealed surprises even ourselves, and we may not understand it, but it doesn’t mean that it’s any less valuable.


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28 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2009 8:58 AM

    I too felt this electric charisma in her role as a corporate figure in Michael Clayton. Your words are flowing….yes, we are strangers even unto ourselves, our own potentials.

  2. October 3, 2009 10:00 AM

    Please – please – proofread it and remove all the stupid mistakes.
    Not nice to see a good essay being beaten down by so much bad grammar.

    • Grace permalink*
      October 3, 2009 10:10 AM

      I write the way I feel, and the grammar is a reflection of that. No one is paying me for this so I don’t feel obligated to make it perfect for anyone else’s eyes.

  3. October 3, 2009 11:40 AM

    Not sure what mistakes Ronak is referring to. I found one verb tense mistake, but this is, after all, a blog, not a published movie review, and a very fine blog, at that. As for using proper grammar, Winston Churchill put it best when he supposedly said, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put” (though this website shows how Churchill cheated a bit in his grammatical construction: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001702.html).

    In addition, E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style that how a sentence sounds is more important than proper grammar when writing fiction (which I will extend to movie reviews and all other art forms), Stephen King says that sometimes the impact of a scene is improved by bad grammar, and I say that the underlining idea of grammar–clarity of thought expressed on paper–often clashes with the emotional impact or “flow” that is the most valuable factor in assigning artistic value to a review, a novel, a play, a poem, a short story, or a blog.

    As for “Julia,” I hope to catch it on DVD, since it is no longer playing around here (and the only movie theater near where I live that was playing it is not in the best part of town).

    • October 3, 2009 2:13 PM

      Mostly, I agree that rules of grammar should be bent if required, as long as it doesn’t jar. I’ll tell you some of the ones I didn’t like:
      1) ‘jest’ instead of ‘gist’: took me a while to figure out what was going on here
      2) ‘She’s fast on her feet and a natural adaptor to her environment.’: really the word ‘adaptor’. This isn’t as bad, or even at all bad. Just that I can’t seem to find (on a quick skim) the other two to three sentences I found hard to read :) though I assure you there were, and not spelling mistakes.

      And, generally, I’m not going through the essay with a grammatical toothbrush, and the essay is filled with colloquialisms which probably violate some rule or the other but sound nothing short of brilliant.

      Also, whatever you say, I have to defer to Grace’s point: it’s her stream of consciousness.

      • Grace permalink*
        October 3, 2009 3:38 PM

        1. Fixed.

        2. Not an “essay”…more like a piece of midnight musing, and those will always remain convoluted and unedited in this blog.

        3. I actually adore imperfections.

        Thanks for the constructive feedback.

      • Archie M Custodio permalink
        October 4, 2009 2:34 AM

        Hi Ronik

        Her usage of the word ‘gist’ is grammatically correct.

        Grace: I corrected it after his comment.

        It is a wonderful, ‘flowing’ read! :)

        Archie

  4. October 4, 2009 3:41 PM

    Hi Grace.

    I haven’t seen “Julia” yet, or the other movies you listed with her in it, actually. But, I like that you liked her and described her so well.

    I did like her in “Benjamin Button”. The scenes when he’s in Russia and they have a brief affair. She does indeed have a presence on screen.

  5. October 5, 2009 7:55 AM

    I have really enjoyed all of Tilda Swinton’s work that I have seen. I have never been let down by anything she has done. I think 2008 was a fantastic year for her. I haven’t seen Julia yet, but now I am going to make the effort.

  6. October 8, 2009 9:12 AM

    It’s interesting, I wanted to see the film from your recommendation of it, but then I wasn’t sure after seeing the trailer. I could be wrong though, because

    1. I usually appreciate films by Magnolia
    2. I respect Tilda Swinton’s talent and choices

    Sometimes though, I think Ms. Swinton is an actor who is consciously ACTING, like Meryl Streep. That kind of actor always gets loads of acclaim but I always like to forget who the actor is, like I always do with Dame Judi Dench, even though she’s so famous. I like for the actor to melt into their character, and, maybe because she looks so striking, Ms. Swinton never has quite done that for me.

    Plum

    Don’t Be a Plum

    • kaifu permalink
      October 31, 2009 4:21 AM

      hmm… here’s the thing. don’t ever let trailer dictate your decision on whether to see a movie. If this article has piqued your interest, then you should by all means do it. This is of course, due to the fact that most trailers are just really bad.

      I’ve seen the movie — in a theatre even. It’s excellent for more than just Tilda/Julia. Zonca needs to make more movies.

      Grace: I love trailers…this one isn’t particularly bad, but sometimes don’t you wish they just won’t give everything away?

  7. notsocynical permalink
    October 31, 2009 4:24 AM

    So glad ebert’s tweet brought me to this. Man, there’s an intangible amount, intrigue, humanity and depth in even the simplest of Ms Swinton’s inflections and gestures. And by the way she acts and inhabits every successive character, I really think she doesn’t really know the full effect she has on her fans. Which is brilliant. Julia’s a brilliant showcase of her range. And I can’t wait to see her as the sophisticated neurotic over-analytical unloving mom in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. If you haven’t read the book, please do so NOW. She’s so perfectly cast and the graph and perspective of the character is such a heady cross of Tilda’s characters in Clayton and Julia, I can’t wait for it.

    Oh I forgot, a supremely well-articulated piece that has managed to pin down the “it” factor in Swinton. I saw Julia in Jan and this is all I could manage to write: http://karana23.wordpress.com/2009/01/14/no76-julia/.

    Very overwhelming, this performer [which reminds me, how did she manage to bring in so much mellow humanity in Benjamin Button. Seriously, she’s too good, and yes, an acquired taste].

    Keep writing!

    Grace: She’s very good at portraying the inner suffering masked under an exterior hardness. That’s why we love her. Most of us secretly suffer somehow and wish people would see it.

  8. tfish permalink
    October 31, 2009 5:05 AM

    grammar? sod that — at least in this context — i just want to see the movie now. the deft and compelling writing here did that. i had ignored this movie when i first heard about it, it sounded like a relentless downer. of course i should have known better, Tilda Swinton is never an actress to be ignored, and this blog post reminded me of that, in technicolor. bravo to the writer i say, and where can i see this film ASAP?

    Grace: It’s out on DVD now.

  9. November 2, 2009 2:15 AM

    Indeed, tilda tilda tilda. and this is one of her best performances. I wish she would have stayed in the first movie, though, and not gone off into the second movie. It is a testament to her talent that she can drag you from one into the other if that’s the director’s vision (or lack of).

    And she is powerful enough to make you forgive a lackluster ending. Endings are the hardest part, it seems, so I’ve tried to give up caring about them and simply ask myself: “Did I enjoy the time I just spent with these imaginary people”? The answer is always yes when Tilda is involved.

    Nice place you got here.

    Grace: what second movie?

    • November 2, 2009 11:14 AM

      The Mexico adventure felt like a second, separate, movie to me.

  10. February 2, 2010 4:07 PM

    If nothing else this article will have me see a movie I may have otherwise never thought of watching. Thank you.

  11. Paul Ferguson permalink
    February 2, 2010 4:45 PM

    In the last month I’ve rewatched Michael Clayton twice, and consider it a masterpiece in part because of Tilda Swinton’s amazing performance. As you say, she has some sort of unexplainable screen presence that make it so you can’t take your eyes off her. I haven’t seen Julia yet, and didn’t realize it was already out on DVD (if it isn’t available on Blu-ray, it doesn’t catch my attention these days.) Will definitely watch this as soon as I can.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “The Deep End”, another stellar performance by Swinton.

    Grace: Clooney was fab in Michael Clayton but let’s face it…Swinton was kind of a scene-stealer. She can’t help it.

  12. April 7, 2010 7:12 PM

    I saw this a few days ago. Tilda Swinton is always great, but she is particularly exceptional here. It’s just a fearless performance. At times Julia pulls herself together and looks beautiful, but Tilda isn’t afraid to show Julia looking like a wreck, either, which is essential to making this such a compelling character study of an alcoholic. Julia is also remarkably intelligent, and one of the great pleasures of the film for me was watching her try to out-think her enemies, to talk herself out of the crazy situations she got herself into. As you say, she’s a natural adapter, great at on-the-spot thinking.

    I love this review, particularly the last paragraph. I think you nailed what makes this character and this film so fascinating.

    Grace: Tilda strikes me because she is always so dynamic, that dynamite.

  13. Steve Norwood permalink
    June 12, 2010 9:25 PM

    Grace, just found your site. Very nice work overall.

    RE: Swinton…I just adore her work (and her, but let’s be professionals here). Two suggestions: go back and look at the Keanu Reeves flick CONSTANTINE. Swinton has a brief but enigmatic role that absolutely enthralls you (she barely bests Peter Stormare in a briefer, equally nutty role). Also, coming soon is an Italian film called I AM LOVE, which I had the distinct pleasure of seeing at the dallas International Film Festival in March. The film is brilliant and Swinton is the driving force. Magnificent stuff. I don’t tire of her work.

    Best,
    Steve Norwood
    Writer, Dallas Film Now (dallasfilmnow.com)
    Senior Programmer, Asian Film Festival of Dallas (affd.org)
    Layabout, Controlled Burning (controlled-burning.com)

    Grace: Thanks Steve. I’ve had my eye on I AM LOVE for a while, hoping to check it out soon. Also will look out for CONSTANTINE. And just a professional observation: Tilda is other-worldly.

  14. June 13, 2010 9:26 PM

    This film beat me hard. Not a fun film to watch at all. Tilda Swinton gave the best performance of 2009 hands down, should have won the Oscar, should have gotten an awards season release, although it might be too harsh for the Academy. This was one of the year’s best.

  15. Rose permalink
    July 4, 2011 5:36 PM

    ****SPOILER ALERT******
    ********************************
    ********************************
    *********************************
    I really didn’t understand the ending in terms of what was going to happen next. Does she take him back to his grandfather? Mother? or Is she simply lying again when she tells him she is taking him to his mother? What do you think?

    • Grace permalink*
      July 6, 2011 2:25 AM

      I don’t think it matters what happens next. I think it matters that she made her choice.

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