Without the presence of Tilda Swinton, Julia would be a catastrophic mess. As the alcoholic, morally questionable kidnapper in Erick Zonca’s film, Swinton’s shifty twitches in personality, her honest desperation, her beautifully imporivisational adeptness, keep this otherwise scattered film from running off the tracks completely. We live and breath with Julia through her most vulnerable, idiotic, and ultimately compassionate decisions, yet for every revelatory moment there’s an enigmatic and asinine filmmaking decision hurling her into a deeper, convoluted hell.
There are many strong proponents of this film that I deeply respect, but it’s amazing to me these critics can so easily reconcile the abysmal sense of pacing Zonca shows throughout the lengthy story, setting the movie in motion to a specific direction, then through some formulaic force of screenwriting propel Julia and Tom, the young boy she’s holding hostage, into a completely different one. This approach grates the life out Swinton’s momentum, creating a tension between performance and directing that is both strange and disheartening. Maybe this very attribute is what they admire most, but a character’s drunken haziness does not give credence for the filmmaking to be equally mindless and hazy.
Not to say Julia doesn’t have moments to admire. The opening sequence crammed with drunken bodies, Julia wasted out of her mind flinging against other women like a bowling ball knocking over pins, calls to mind the smokey locales and characters of Cassavetes. And thankfully Julia’s relationship with Tom never fully redeems her, achieving a deep complexity by slowly revealing the impact of her actions and the details of her life more important than money or booze. For all these superb moments, Zonca shreds the film with endless plot twists, chase sequences, and standoffs where Julia feels completely out of place. Julia is up to her eyeballs in trouble from the start, but never once does the Zonca make any of these physical conflicts as real as the personal turmoil going on inside Swinton’s daring performance.