Neo-Noir: Julia (2008)

Tilda Swinton stars in JULIA, a neo-noir, down-and-out thriller

JULIA (2008) dir Erick Zonca

An A-list star takes a role in a crime film that offers a chance to slum it as a low-life in a downward, drunken spiral amongst the neon flicker of dive bars and low-rent flop houses. A recipe for Oscar-bait — well, if you’re male. If you’re Tilda Swinton, not so much. There’s no sympathy for a woman who has crashed; people want to believe she was ‘born bad’ and deserves what she got (also that it could never ever happen to them).

Premiering at the Berlin film festival to great acclaim, the French press immediately absorbed the Scots actor into Gallic praise, calling her star turn a ‘French film with English dialogue.’ Many European critics repeated the praise for this unpredictable crime thriller.

Naturally, it tanked in the US.

Swinton is, as always, riveting. The opening scenes that track the good-time gal through a drunken night to its aftermath would make Kingsley Amis wince. It’s a brutal life, but one Julia can’t seem to escape, however much her sponsor Mitch (Saul Rubinek) tries to convince her with his own sad trajectory. Her feeble attempt to tread the AA path leads her to a kind of one-sided ‘friendship’ with her neighbour, the similarly plagued Elena (Kate del Castillo).

Elena has a motivation to work on her recovery: she wants her son back from her autocratic grandfather. She hatches a ‘foolproof’ kidnapping scheme that will give Julia much needed cash and allow Elena to escape back to Mexico with her son to live happily ever after. With two alcoholics at the centre you know this plan is going to go south and soon. No, sooner than that.

To say that everything goes wrong is to understate the mess of madness that is this ‘caper’; I actually stopped the film in the middle because I was just could not stomach the tension of wondering if that gun was going to go off or not (if you watch this, you can probably guess the scene). You know from the start everything will go wrong, what’s fascinating is all the ways it goes wrong and how — defying the odds, as she as does in the shambolic life she leads — Julia keeps things going.

Julia’s no Bukowski: there’s no sense of her drunkenness as a ‘noble’ rebelliousness or ‘fuck you’ to conformity. It’s just an illness she cannot stop and will not try. It makes a mess of everything and she is…not exactly blind to it, but thinks she can manage as if it were no more than a leaky tap or a car that has trouble starting on cold days. You can see the wreckage of what she once was. And you keep wondering just how low is too low — if anything is — for her persistent desire to doggedly keep on.

If it had been me, I might have trimmed a bit more from the film. At 144 minutes it’s longer than it needs to be, but there are some amazing set pieces that I would not cut for anything, like her search in the desert, which really highlights her utter isolation. Not for everyone, but a rewarding watch for those who enjoy the saturated highlife of neo-noir and can cope with sudden brutal violence and a child put in dangerous situations. If you think it has echoes of Cassavetes’ Gloria, you’d be right, but sooooo much more brutal.