Not everyone will want to see Julia. It's not a 'happy' picture, and its bleakness is compounded by an ending that is bittersweet only inasmuch that the main characters are (spoiler alert) still alive. And not too many people rush out to see a two hour and twenty minute movie with Tilda Swinton (albeit a recent well-deserved Oscar winner) playing an alcoholic floozy who takes a chance to make a lot of money by kidnapping a kid who at first she's getting done for the boy's mother, only to find herself in deeper trouble south of the border. But for those of us that would be interested in seeing another hard-hitting drama with Tilda Swinton in the lead (think back, for those who might remember, to the likes of The Deep End), it's a kind of intense bliss. It's also one of the more unusual kidnapper stories ever told, mayhap.
In the movie Tilda Swinton is Julia, who is so bad at her alcoholism she shows up to an AA meeting only to leave a minute into it and stand in the lobby smoking cigarettes. She's lost her job, she has a wax-on-wax-off relationship with a former drunk (Saul Rubinek), and is listening with half-ears-open to an unstable Mexican woman who wants to see her son again. She tells Julia she can get rich, very rich, since the kid's grandfather has a lot of money with his company. So Julia, in her desperation and debts mounting, goes for the task and kidnaps the kid while out playing in the woods. She wears a black mask in front of the kid (looking, the Mexican mother comments, "like a demon"), but soon takes it off when trust is reached between them. She also isn't sure what to do, and by a kind of crazy twist of fate (i.e. driving maniacally through the desert to lose a helicopter following a bunch of illegals crossing the border), she winds up in Tijuana.
This is already an hour and a half into the movie, and there's still plenty more to go here. I could spoil everything else that happens in the film, but it would spoil not so much the 'fun' but the harrowing irony that befalls Julia just on the tip of getting two million (suffice to say, think Man on Fire, only less Tony Scott and more... realistic). Yet Julia doesn't get bogged down in melodrama, and you don't even realize that much time has passed. It's a long movie, but you get wrapped up in Julia's struggle; she's an anti-hero in a definite term, and because she's played by Swinton as a strong and determined 'dame' with nothing to lose we stick with her wherever her story takes her.
And while I would hope to give Swinton as much praise as possible, since it is such a brave performance that calls up all of her skills as an actress, foregoing any BS Hollywood star ego for down-and-dirty scenes in Tijuana and up against non-professional players in the Mexico locations, it's also Erick Zonca's movie. One may recall his achievement with The Dreamlife of Angels, about two young French women living in an apartment with various dramas, but this time with Julia he takes things into a kind of dark, naturalistic fable. He gives some moments for us to breathe in-between those tense scenes between Swinton and the boy, or in those later Mexico scenes, to really take in landscapes and the scenery, that desert Julia takes Tom to hide in, or the rough beauty of the streets of Tijuana, or even in that opening scene at the bar that sets up Julia as this unlikely protagonist.
Zonca's made with Julia a morality play rich in thrills and poetic irony in the guise of a neo-noir, and cast it with an actress who won't make a character sympathetic for the sake of it but real enough for us to understand her every step of the way.