Apart from her stunning consistency, one of Tilda Swinton’s trademarks is a proclivity towards the eccentric. But it isn’t the cutesy, attention-seeking eccentricity that plagued Johnny Depp’s post-Jack Sparrow years. In 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton played a 2,000-year-old vampire struggling with — as might any of us mortals — boredom and petty marital disagreements. From her sinister headmistress in Suspiria to the narcissistic angel Gabriel in Constantine, Swinton instills otherworldly characters with distinctly human quirks. No matter how outlandish they may appear on paper, they’re always tangible .
Director Erick Zonca’s 2008 crime drama Julia is shaggy and self-indulgent to a fault. Yet its flaws are fitting given the broken nature of the central character. As Julia, Swinton strips away her signature aloofness for a character whose anguish is so authentic that watching it you feel as if you might be able to reach out and touch the sweat dripping from her brow. This is the kind of vulnerable performance that critics tend to champion as “fearless” when actors like Adam Sandler or Harvey Keitel pull them off, but Swinton’s audience-challenging turn has been mostly forgotten.
Upon introduction, Julia appears to be the type of person everyone has seen if they’ve stayed out a little too late at the bar: disheveled, embarrassingly loud and aggressive enough to send anyone even remotely sober heading for the exit. You get the sense this is how she spends most nights. And you’d be right. When she wakes up the next morning in the backseat of a stranger’s car, she stumbles her way into her real-estate job and is promptly fired.
Many cinematic depictions of alcoholism try to inspire audience compassion by portraying the protagonist as a decent person tragically losing themselves to their demons. The Julia of the film’s first half has lost any decency long ago. Concerns voiced by her AA sponsor and boss are met with venomous insults and indignant excuses. She’s so selfish that when her equally unstable neighbor Elena enlists her in a scheme to kidnap her 10-year-old son, Tom (Aidan Gould), from his wealthy grandfather (to whom she lost custody years ago), Julia immediately hijacks the plan to ensure maximum profit for herself. Things do not go well from there.
Yes, Julia is yet another example of the ever-popular “bad-to-worse” crime thriller where a character’s greed transforms an already ill-advised criminal plot into their own Faustian downfall. What separates this from the likes of, say, a Fargo or a Breaking Bad has nothing to do with story; on that front, it’s actually pretty standard. It’s all to do with Swinton. Zonca wisely lets her performance take precedence over the film’s thriller plot structure.
During the actual kidnapping (which occurs surprisingly early), Julia makes a spur-of-the-moment decision so monstrous as to redefine her entire character. She then takes a minute to pause; here Swinton wears an expression that tells viewers everything they need to know about her mental state, the circumstances that led up to this horrible act and her eagerness to escape a cycle of self-abuse. Trembling, out-of-breath, and donned with smeared makeup, her frantic eyes reveal a dangerous desperation. Swinton adds these naturalistic touches throughout in a way that makes the unbelievable twists of the screenplay believable.
Swinton is too skilled a performer to simply play Julia as a female Walter White. In the hands of another actress, the obligatory mother-son bond between Tom and Julia would sink the entire enterprise into a maudlin mess. Still, the actress manages to make the glimpse at Julia’s tender side feel like just that. Julia has made too much of a disaster of her own life to earn a plausible happy ending, and Swinton understands what’s truly powerful is the mere suggestion of humanity in someone who up until then seemed irredeemable.
One won’t walk away from Julia convinced they’ve seen one of 2008’s great, lost treasures. At two-and-a-half hours, the pacing is all over the place, and the Tijuana setting of the movie’s second half is rendered with a simplicity that would likely earn it a lambasting today. Julia the character, however, is one of the actresses’ finest creations, elevating someone ridiculous on the page into a complex figure — sickening, sympathetic, selfish… but all Swinton.