Tilda Swinton, in 'Julia'

Dir. Erick Zonca
(2009, R, 145 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Julia isn’t about alcoholism. Or a kidnapping. Or a redemption or a downfall. It’s about watching Julia Harris work. She is an alcoholic and a kidnapper, but what is fascinating about her is how from the very first minute of the film to the very last she seems to have an angle, a stubborn persistence in pursuit of a windfall, and the often delusional belief that no matter what happens she can somehow turn it around in her favor. She is venal, ruthless, and relentlessly single-minded. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

She’s played by Tilda Swinton in a blazing performance. In the opening scene we see her in her natural habitat: at a bar with a cocktail in hand. The title flashes over an image of her stumbling through with tousled hair, as if to say, this is definitively Julia: sloppy, sloshed, laughing mindlessly, then waking up the next morning in the backseat of someone else’s car. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but she can probably guess. It’s not her first blackout. They’re part of the routine.

She is not a functioning alcoholic. In the very next scene she is being fired from her job, which she got on the recommendation of her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who would have given up on Julia long ago, but he’s been there and back and wants to keep her from making the same mistakes.

At first we think the film will be about her drinking. Yes, but only in part. She’s obligated to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where she is recognized by her neighbor Elena (Kate del Castillo). Elena has a problem and asks for Julia’s help: her son is being raised by his rich grandfather, and Elena wants to kidnap the boy to raise him alone. She offers Julia money, and Julia agrees. Why Elena trusts this strange woman and why Julia goes along with it we don’t readily understand. Julia’s motivation becomes clearer when she cobbles together a plan of her own, but Elena disappears from the story for long stretches where we wonder what the screenplay has done with her.

The kidnapping goes awry, and more awry, and more awry. Julia isn’t adept at crime. She mostly makes it up as she goes along. But she’s a practiced liar. The thrill of the film is watching her, by sheer force of will, connive her way into and out of situations where she is hopelessly out of her depth. Listen to the way she invents dollar amounts while at gunpoint; even in the gravest of danger, she’s trying to get over.

The young boy is eight-year-old Tom (Aidan Gould). Does Julia have any affection for him? She pretends to. And maybe a little genuine affection seeps in despite herself. For the most part, he is whatever she can use him for: a bargaining chip, a lottery ticket, a prop for sympathy. The film is long at 145 minutes, and sags in the middle portions where Tom’s terror settles into cutesy impertinence and they begin to bond, if you can call it that. It improves again during an exhilarating third act in Mexico, where a man named Diego (Bruno Bichir) warns Julia that Tijuana isn’t a safe place for a pretty American woman. He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.