Julia (Tilda Swinton) is a hot mess whose hotness has dissipated after too many nights of chain smoking, blackout boozing, and amnesiac mornings waking up in beds or in the backseat of cars next to strange, regretful men. Fired from her job, in thrall to the bottle, and furious at the world and herself, she’s a 40-year-old floozy barely making it from one day to the next, and the skanky black hole sucking up the camera’s unwavering attention in Julia, Erick Zonca’s follow-up to 1998’s The Dreamlife of Angels.
For its opening stanzas, Zonka’s film raptly follows its dissolute subject from nightclubs where married men grudgingly acquiesce to her sloppy come-ons, to the job from which she’s summarily fired, to an apartment where, having apparently long-ago lost any sense of self-consciousness or propriety, she staggers about in the nude, indifferently wiping her armpits with her hand and letting her flabby ass enjoy the crisp morning air before she takes a bath, burning cigarette perched precariously on the tub’s edge. All flaming red hair, shimmering (and askew) cocktail dresses that seem to scream in the sunlight, and a face whose smiles and snarls are borderline indistinguishable, Swinton’s Julia is a marvelously ugly disaster. Though its obsessive stare clearly indicates fascination, Julia takes a non-judgmental view of its anti-heroine, an approach that’s sure to turn some people off (especially given that Julia, through the plot’s first two acts, behaves in ways ranging from unpleasant to psychotically horrific), but which imbues the proceedings with a requisite measure of humanism.
Zonca eschews moralizing or comforting filters, presenting Julia as is, which in this case is a train wreck of epic proportions who, at an AA meeting, meets a creepily smiley Hispanic woman (Kate del Castillo) with grand designs to liberate her son from the clutches of his electronics magnate grandfather by kidnapping him and fleeing to Mexico. It’s a harebrained scheme but one that Julia, her mind soused and her pocketbook empty, nonetheless buys as legit, leading her to sign up for a snatch-and-ransom scheme that, commencing with an attempted homicide, predictably goes awry and leaves her in the custody of eight-year-old Tom (Aidan Gould). From there, it’s further down the drainage pipe, her saga coming to involve verbal and physical child abuse and neglect, a flight from immigration officials that has her literally crashing into the Mexican border, and another, even more harrowing kidnapping predicament in Tijuana.
Zonca’s story is an unruly beast, lurching this way and that like a biker hopped up on mescaline and paint thinner, its unpredictable rowdiness in sync with its out-of-control protagonist. From its towering female lead, to her relationship with a young boy, to their involvement in criminal enterprises, Julia is a clear riff on the work of Cassavettes. That spiritual ancestry is also felt in Zonca’s disinterest in traditional scores as well as his immediate, off-the-cuff cinematography, which—full of scorching outdoor whites and luscious indoor reds and blacks, and almost never resorting to studied compositions and symbolism—captures harsh honesty in quick glimpses. The film feels wild, messy, and uninhibited, a dynamism that complements a fearless performance by Swinton that, when she’s screaming at her adolescent prisoner to clean shit off himself, or duck-taping him to a radiator after doping him with sedatives, at times crosses over into unforgivable realms. There’s a somewhat formulaic maturation narrative lurking within this sprawling saga, but it’s one Zonca mostly keeps shrouded underneath piles of grime and depravity. Julia’s gradual transformation from debauched gutter-dweller to caring, pseudo-motherly guardian sounds contrived, but comes off as both hard-earned and natural thanks to the immediacy of Zonca’s helming, and to Swinton’s willingness to inhabit her often-sickening character without apology or condescension.
Even when unwarranted, that generosity of spirit enlivens Julia, and interest in Swinton’s degenerate is most forcefully elicited by an early scene between Julia and her best friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek). In this superlative showcase for character actor Rubinek, Mitch—after having rescued Julia from another all-night bender, and woken up with her in his bed—takes her to task for her narcissistic self-destructiveness and cowardly denial of those qualities, figuratively spitting on her self-penned tale of woe by recounting his own alcoholic horror story, in which negligence and unintended abuse cost him a wife and daughter. It’s a blistering anecdote that throws into sharp relief the pathetic egotism of Julia’s intentional ruination. Yet it’s in Mitch’s failure to conclusively refute Julia’s claim that he loves her, even while caustically censuring her, that Zonca’s film engenders compassion for its wayward protagonist, providing in Mitch’s stern but generous eyes a glimmer of faith in Julia that helps counterbalance her distasteful conduct. His ability to see the good in Julia inspires our own empathetic gaze, which is repaid in a finale that—unlike the film’s one, bed-cuddling misstep—is staged by Zonca with ideal measures of high-strung spontaneity and roughly hewn sentimentality.