Tilda Swinton has delivered several stellar supporting performances over the past few years in movies as diverse as The Chronicles Of Narnia and Michael Clayton, so it’s high time she got a leading role as strong as the colossally self-absorbed alcoholic she plays in Julia. It’s also great to see another film written and directed by Erick Zonca, who impressed with The Dreamlife Of Angels a decade ago but has been largely idle since. Like Zonca’s earlier success, Julia follows its own unsteady rhythm, careening from comedy to suspense to pathos so heedlessly that some audience members may be thrown. But Zonca’s merely feeding off Swinton’s manic performance, which starts out tough to watch, then becomes gripping.
In tone and plot, Julia often resembles an extended episode of the AMC series Breaking Bad—except that Swinton’s character is never not bad. We first meet her in a fashionable bar, where she’s just a little too loud and a little too out of control. Then, during one hangover haze, Swinton gets sucked into a conversation with her neighbor Kate de Castillo, who asks for her help in a half-assed plot to regain custody of her son. Sensing an opportunity to score some much-needed cash, Swinton commandeers the plan, shoving de Castillo aside. Soon she’s on the run with de Castillo’s son Aidan Gould, and trying to find some way to work an increasingly impossible situation to her advantage.
Julia bears a superficial resemblance to John Cassavetes’ mob movie Gloria, but the specifics are markedly different. Swinton’s seizing of Gould, for example, is particularly brutal, involving her terrorizing the poor kid with masks, drugs, and verbal abuse. Swinton can be pretty hard to take. She grins like a Cheshire Cat, and answers every question with lies so elaborate that even she seems a little aghast at her knack for self-justification. (When Gould questions whether Swinton had his best interests at heart when she pointed a gun at him and shoved him in the trunk of her car, she retorts, “Are you shot?”) Yet her ability to think on her feet—and her familiarity with sleazy dives—comes in handy as the plan starts to get away from her during a detour into Mexico. At one point in the film, while preparing to do something ill-advised, Swinton swills vodka and slaps herself, to work up some courage. She’s never sure what she’s going to do next. The best part about Julia? Neither are we.