Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Home Video: Julia

Directed by Erick Zonca
Released May 8, 2009

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has a prime focus on telling one character’s story. Many films, especially biopics, bear their protagonist’s name in the title, but few are so completely about that one person. There may be several, though few, supporting characters, but they are important only for the way in which they interact with the main character. This special brand of movie is so fully invested in one character that appears in all of its scenes and makes or breaks the story. It’s a challenge to fill 144 minutes with the story of just one woman, but “Julia” is fascinating and engaging from start to finish.

The success of a movie so tightly focused on one character is highly dependent on its lead performer. Tilda Swinton throws herself completely into the role of Julia, and within minutes makes it clear that she’s an out-of-control drunk struggling to hold down her menial life. Things quickly spiral downward, and Swinton immediately rolls with the punches every time. The performance is incredibly complex, and Julia is extremely unsympathetic, but because the movie is all about her, it’s hard not to feel her pain. The brilliant ability of Swinton to inhabit the role is particularly commendable. It’s truly a shame that Swinton won her (first) Oscar for her lackluster performance in “Michael Clayton” two years ago since she’s clearly capable of so much more (like “The Deep End”). She could very well earn another nomination for this film come Oscar time.

It almost seems like the plot isn’t as important since the movie has such a strong central character. Regardless, it’s a whirlwind adventure that just keeps getting darker and darker. It’s fully interesting, but it’s hard to believe that a movie that started out at such a depraved, relatively harmless point finds itself headed towards such a dangerous place. It feels very much like a mix between the gritty horror of “Frozen River” and the stark realism of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” trading human trafficking and bank robberies for child kidnapping. It’s hard to predict how things are going to end up because one thing just keeps going wrong after another, but “Julia” is an inventive thriller that just keeps its lens tightly on its main character, and her struggles become the failures and successes of the viewer. It’s unlike traditional dramas in the way that it’s unapologetic and unconcerned with creating bravado happy endings, but that just makes it darker and much more interesting.


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