Just as there are people who cannot tell lies, there are people who cannot tell the truth. Julia (Tilda Swinton) has no concept of honesty. Maybe she did once, when she was younger, but alcoholism has blacked out that memory. Now she lives in an elaborate world of mostly improvised, fool-nobody lies. They serve to protect her from the truth: that she’s not a bewitching charmer but a veering-off-the-cliff drunk who uses people, then discards them like empty beer bottles.
Playing someone like that takes a hearty lack of vanity because Julia is a cruel, if not downright despicable, person. She rewards a helpful neighbor (Kate del Castillo), who drags Julia into her apartment after finding her passed out on the pavement, with a curt “I’m not really down with the good neighbor shit.” (The lit cigarette dangling from her lips adds a nice touch.) She looks rode hard and put away wet — smeared make-up or none at all, dirty hair sticking in 15 directions, too-tight dress hiked above her waist. This is rough stuff, and not a part that many actresses would take. Then again, no one’s ever accused Tilda Swinton of being stuck-up. She goes full-throttle in every part; she relishes a good challenge, even one as tough as Julia, who’s not only a raging, unrepentant alcoholic but might be crazy, certifiably crazy, as well.
With Julia, Swinton more than surpasses our expectations. There’s none of this “time to grow a heart of gold” horse manueur — she doesn’t soften Julia’s edges or find the good girl within. No, she keeps right on being hateful and ruthless because the character is hateful and ruthless. It’s a testament to Swinton’s skill as an actress that we like Julia no better (my argument: she doesn’t grow at all) at the end than we did at the beginning. And in the beginning? Whoa, what a flaming train wreck this woman is. She’s boozed her way out of the job her friend Mitch (Saul Rubinek) got for her, blames a co-worker and spews profanity at her boss. She believes everything happens to her, not the other way around. She barely goes to AA. The one time she does, she meets Elena (the gut-wrenching del Castillo), a widow and recovering addict planning to kidnap her son Tom (Aidan Gould) from his rich grandfather. Elena waits until after she rescues Julia from her pavement blackout to ask for help. Julia, of course, isn’t interested … until Elena offers her $50,000. She is, it seems, a widow with financial means. Julia agrees because surely 50 grand will be her ticket out of this life. That a mother and son will be reunited matters little.
Plot-wise, that’s all that should be revealed, because “Julia” is a humdinger of a what-the-hell-just-happened? thriller. Too many unexpected turns crop up to keep them all sorted out. What begins as one kidnapping turns into two; double-crosses turn into triple-crosses; seemingly ordinary people turn out to be volatile criminals, even killers. There are point-blank murders and a desert car chase with helicopters and so many lies that not even Julia, who’s doing the telling, can begin to remember them all. Many of these twists are far-fetched, even impossible, but they work on two levels: They keep the tension consistently high (director Erick Zonca has an effective, almost documentary-like approach to filming violence) and they seem a natural fit for Julia’s life, a house of cards dependent on deceit to keep standing. The chaotic story seems to offer us a glimpse into Julia’s chaotic mind.
Swinton sells this material, or at least delivers such a knockout performance that we don’t think to question the more implausible elements. She’s at her best in her scenes with the young Gould, where we see her drug him, bind-and-gag him, toss him in car trunks without much thought. The more time they spend together, the more you’d expect her to warm toward Tom — not necessarily. Much like a psychopath incapable of emotion, she mimics socially appropriate responses. Even in the end, we can’t be sure if Julia’s changed or if circumstances have forced her hand. Tilda Swinton has the gumption to pull this off. Would that we could have more actresses like her.