Julia. Tilda. Tilda. Julia.
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.