In Julia, a life spirals messily and dangerously out of control. Then things really start to get dire. When we first meet the movie's eponymous heroine, played with a pinwheel ferocity by the amazing Tilda Swinton, she's already a broken woman - a shambling, blowsy alcoholic, used to waking up hung over in the company of strange men whom she pushes away with a repulsed "Don't touch me," only to repeat the cycle the following night.
Julia is in debt and behind on her rent when she's fired from her job. Like most addicts, she's in denial over the severity of her situation, and she regards the world with a righteous anger, as if none of it were her fault. She storms out of AA meetings, dismissing them as nothing but "prayers and women lamenting," and she rails at her sole friend, Mitch (Saul Rubinek), a recovering alcoholic trying to help her right her life.
Directed by France's Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels), who clearly relishes the opportunity to put his audience through the wringer (and excels at it, too), Julia quickly shifts gears from a naturalistic portrait of a woman on the verge of self-annihilation to a taut thriller of the most harrowing kind.
Desperate for cash, Julia agrees to help her eccentric neighbor Elena (Kate del Castillo) wrest her 8-year-old son Tom (Aidan Gould, a real trooper of a child actor) from the clutches of his evil grandfather. Elena offers Julia a pile of money for her assistance, but that's not enough for the drunkard, who instead concocts "the double-cross of a lifetime'' in hopes of putting her financial woes to rest for good. To say that things go wrong does not begin to describe the nerve-racking disaster that follows.
One of the running jokes in Julia is that none of the heroine's plans ever works out as she intended, mostly because they're based on rotten ideas conceived through an alcohol haze. Swinton has built her career on indelible supporting roles: She won an Oscar as George Clooney's legal opponent in Michael Clayton, and she killed as John Malkovich's bitterly adulterous wife in Burn After Reading.
As a lead actress, though, Swinton traditionally has gravitated toward more challenging, edgy pictures (Orlando, Female Perversions) that played on the farthest outskirts of the arthouse-cinema circuit. Julia is the first genuinely accessible movie with mainstream appeal in which Swinton has starred, and Zonca is so mesmerized by her portrayal of a ruinous, scabrous viper that he builds the entire film around her. A scene in which Julia and the little boy hole up inside a motel room - a scene in which the picture practically dares you not to hate her - is a particularly fearless piece of acting by someone who has never shied away from risks.
Julia is partly an homage to John Cassavetes' Gloria, another tale of a tough broad and the kid in her charge. But the movie is equally indebted to Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, as well as the first segment of Amores Perros. The closing shot strikes the film's only flat note, but by then you'll be too wrung out to care. Charles Bukowski would have loved this foul-mouthed, fiery, reckless woman. Against all odds and common sense, you will, too.
Julia opens Friday, Aug. 28 at the Cosford Cinema in Miami.