Monday, January 21, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #57 - Julia (2008, dir Erick Zonca)

Julia is a movie about an alcoholic (and pretty much everyone around her) making a lot of bad decisions and then the fallout of those decisions leading to worse consequences. It’s something like a thriller, because it keeps a high level of tension throughout the film as it moves into a seedy criminal underworld, but it’s also a drama about this sad messed-up woman. And yet, in spite of its seriousness and intensity there are some darkly comic moments, usually delivered because you can see Julia’s alcoholic brain thinking hard, trying to find the quickest way out of a situation and usually deciding on a course of action that you already know is going to solve an immediate problem and yet create another, which of course she can never see. In Mexico, where about half the film takes place, it was known as Crimen Repentino, which translates as “Sudden Crime” and this may very well convey better a sense of what the film’s like, moving quickly from one bad situation to another, and then when we think there’s a respite, we’re quickly back in the thick of it based on yet more bad decisions Julia’s made: the way she flirts almost automatically when she senses it might give her some advantage, the way she lies compulsively to avoid taking the blame for any of her actions.
Then again, maybe the English title conveys the idea of the film best, because it is definitively centered on the tour de force performance by Tilda Swinton as Julia. She manages to draw you into Julia’s world, creating a thoroughly unlikable woman who you still manage to have sympathy for – a tricky act to pull. But that’s probably got something to do with the kid, too, but more about that in a second. The start of the chain of events of the film, which I can only tell a little bit of so as not to give anything key away, is that Julia has lost another job because of her drinking. Her friend, trying to help her get her life together, tells her that the only way she’ll get continued help from him is to attend AA meetings which she’s got no patience for. But knowing a good thing when she sees it and not wanting to cut off his support, she goes. There she meets a woman who we immediately sense is a little odd – and so does Julia – who asks Julia for help. You see, she’s Julia’s neighbor and has seen her before. She’s got a son named Tom whose evil grandfather, she explains, won’t let her see him. It would be simple, she explains to an eye-rolling, agitated and bored Julia, to simply kidnap Tom when he’s out on a picnic and zip off to her family home in Mexico where there’s tons of money and a perfect life just waiting for her – and for Julia too if she’s willing to help out. At first Julia says the same thing we do – “Are you nuts?” – but then she starts to see that maybe it could work, she could help out for a little bit and get a huge payoff for merely driving a car. And that’s as much as you can know before watching it because part of the major interest of the film is watching how Julia’s terrible judgment – but also her quick-witted thinking – keeps things moving.
 And once things start to roll, there’s no stopping it. Julia moves from one situation to the next, behaving badly and foolishly in a way that’s sometimes uncomfortable to watch, sometimes perversely funny as when she slurs to the kid she’s trying to kidnap “I can see you’re mad at me.” The movie could easily have been a generic road-movie comedy with an edge – there are a lot of films with a grouchy adult paired with an annoying kid where we come to like both of them by the end – but this is not that movie. It pulls inspiration from John Cassavetes’ 1980 film Gloria, where Gena Rowlands is a gangster’s former flame who ends up protecting a kid when the mob wipes out his family but misses him. For me, this film is even better than its inspiration, and that’s largely due to Swinton’s amazing performance which, again, puts you in a position of sympathy with a woman you probably shouldn’t be sympathizing with. She simply nails the mind and mannerisms of an alcoholic, constantly assessing the way to use her assets to turn any situation to her best immediate advantage, which proves to be what keeps her alive and moving in the film as things go from bad to worse.
- Patrick Brown

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