Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // September 16th, 2009
You don't know me, I don't know you. You get in my car and I take you to your mom.
Director Erick Zonca (Dreamlife of Angels) has been deeply influenced by the films of John Cassavetes, which can clearly be seen in Julia. Tilda Swinton (Orlando) channels Gena Rowlands in one of the best performances of her career, though it's not all peaches. Rampant alcoholism, however, does not make the most enjoyable subject for a kidnapping thriller. Can Swinton buoy this dour crime picture on the strength of her presence alone?
Julia (Swinton) is getting older and the booze is starting to take over her life. The nights of parties and the mornings of not knowing who she wakes up with have kept her from holding down a job and alienated her from her friends; it seems like she's in the spiral toward oblivion. Mitch (Saul Rubinek, True Romance), her last friend and a recovering alcoholic himself, tries to help by making her go to AA meetings and keeping her financially afloat as best he can. At one of these meetings, Julia meets a crazy young drunk who wants her to help kidnap her son, taken years before by his grandfather to protect him. The woman offers Julia a lot of money and, though Julia is hardly a criminal, this money would be enough to finally get her life back on track.
I wish I could fully support Julia (the movie, not the character...that woman's a wreck), I really do. There are some very good things in the film, especially in Sinton's stellar portrayal of the title character. A pathetic full-blown alcoholic who destroys everything she touches, Julia finds every excuse she can to drink. In the bar, men find her witty and attractive, but they always remain distanced enough that she doesn't reveal her deep self-loathing in public. That comes out plenty in private, which she drowns in booze only to continue the cycle. Swinton's performance is so vivid and nuanced; she is the most utterly realistic drunk I've ever seen on film. It's not about the yelling and screaming or her flouncing drunken walk. It's the small things like the way she sticks her tongue out in the morning, licking her lips in vain for a little moisture. It's gross, but true. There's no need for her to complain about having a hangover, this comes out in her whole presence; you can almost smell the gin through the television. When she finally gets her morning drink, her eyes glass over for a second and, when the drink hits her brain, she settles in "normal." Her performance is packed with subtleties that, together, make a scary portrait of a very marginal person.
She isn't the only one with a good showing in Julia. The underrated Rubinek is great, perfectly playing the worst kind of recovering addict, who now sees the drug as pure evil and who can't help but tell you all the horrible things they did while under its influence to try and shock you out of your own supposed addiction. This kind of person has such little self-awareness that they can't see they hurt more than they help and, if they are told that, they devolve into martyrdom. This guy makes me really mad, and he only gets worse until his final scene, where he made me yell out loud at the screen. Even young Aidan Gould, as the kidnapping victim, does great. Normally, I'm pretty down on child acting, but a good performance is a good performance regardless of age, I suppose. The character is an entitled little snot, and he plays it great.
The DVD release of Julia from Magnolia Home Entertainment is also quite good. The film doesn't sport much of a budget, but the gritty style is well-represented on the disc. Julia's garish cocktail dresses would be doubly painful with a hangover, they stand out so well. Flesh tones are very accurate and the image, particularly in the plentiful night scenes, feature strong detail and deep blacks. The transfer occasionally shows some artifacts and some slight edge enhancement, but nothing too noticeable. The surround mix is surprisingly powerful for a dialog-heavy film such as this, but the music and dialog come through loud and clear. While there are no subtitle options, a silly thing to exclude, I do respect the decision in the film not to subtitle the Spanish speaking characters during the scenes in Mexico. I don't know Spanish, so I can't know what they're saying, but that puts me in the same boat as the English speaking characters, which helps add to the immersiveness. All we have for extras is a half hour of deleted scenes, which I'd generally be fine with, were it not for what I'm about to write.
As good as the performances are, the story absolutely sinks Julia. This anti-alcohol rant couched as thriller is one of the poorest excuses for coherent storytelling I've seen in some time. The film starts fine; the opening scenes as we get to know Julia are intriguing and well-directed, though we don't know where the story is about to go. I rue the minute I found out, however, because that's when the story starts to resemble a poorly played game of Jenga than feature film. Once Julia agrees to the kidnapping, her life is suddenly changed dramatically. She's still a drunk, but gone are the scenes from the bar, with nothing nearly as compelling to replace them. As the kidnapping takes place, the mother is nowhere to be found and, as things go wrong, Julia makes a choice that not only is very out of character, but turns her into a violent criminal. Though the mother is occasionally mentioned afterward, she disappears from the film entirely, somehow leaving Julia as the orchestrator of this crime. Every subsequent event is based on unexplained coincidences and, by the end of this overlong yarn, Julia is redeemed. How? I don't see it, she seems worse. Add to this the final speech from Mitch that, while well-performed, clues us in that this film is little more than a weird anti-alcoholic screed. Those deleted scenes I mentioned are more scenes just like this, and that's the last thing I want to see.
Julia is a frustrating, convoluted, and exceptionally performed mess. Swinton is amazing and the film is terrible. Watch the film for her performance, but fair warning about the story.
Guilty, except for Swinton, who shines. Now let's go get a drink. You're
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes