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Julia (Erick Zonca, 2008)
Centered on what might be the most incredibly botched kidnapping ever to be put on celluloid, Erick Zoncaís uncharacterizable Julia is at once a marvel of screen acting, an unthinkably black comedy, and one of the few truly nail-biting suspense films to emerge this decade. Anchored, for every one of its 138 minutes, by a manic Tilda Swinton, this examination of a character under extreme stress is more than willing to make its audience every bit as uncomfortable as its desperate anti-heroine. What results is a remarkably spontaneous movie, filled with illogical decision making and unpredictable motivational whims. Were Julia a character study alone, such sustained rashness would likely be unfulfilling, and possibly disastrous, but since the movie quickly assumes the shape of a thriller, its chaotic nature becomes a defining asset.
The unceasing one-upmanship found in Juliaís narrative is perfectly suited to its lead character Julia. She lives hard and talks harder. Quickly realizing that sheís past her prime in life with little to show for it beyond a string of one-night stands and a drinking problem, Julia is a spectacle of bad judgment. Itís a role that asks for a big performance, and Swinton, better than she has ever been before, delivers in spades. Her brazenly unsympathetic characterization offers plenty of grit and a complete lack of vanity. In Swintonís hands, Julia becomes a force of nature, her red mane recalling nothing less, and nothing less dangerous, than a feral lion.
Bumbling fool that Julia is, however, one canít say that she doesnít dream big. Thanks to Juliaís endless manipulations, Julia becomes a test of the audienceís willingness to stick with an unlikable character. She physically abuses, verbally berates, and psychologically manipulates all of those that she meets, throughout the picture. Her ill intentions and self-interest are always clear, especially when it strikes her as convenient to feign friendship with others. Despite this, because of Zoncaís unflagging devotion to her, she inevitably becomes an identification figure. As we watch, if we somehow manage to avoid complete repulsion, we become her accomplices through association.
Itís immediately clear that Cassavetes was a clear inspiration for Zonca. The plot and title of Julia nod toward Cassavetesí Gloria, but this is clearly its own beast. If anything, the trajectory of Juliaís storyline feels like an inversion of what Cassavetes and Rowlands were attempting. Indeed, only the first thirty minutes of Julia could be described as similar to Cassavetesí work. What follows after that is far too concerned with plot, and too tightly edited, to warrant a fruitful comparison to what Cassavetes produced.
As Julia unfolds, it becomes a genre unto itself. Itís too terrible to be comic, too improvisational to be only a thriller, and too grounded in reality to be a horror movie. The length of the film becomes necessary for it to achieve its effect, as we see Julia fail time and again, her situation always growing unfathomably worse. Zoncaís narrative ellipses, coupled with Juliaís wrecklessness, begin to create a form of suspense of their own. When the director cuts from night to day, we begin to fully expect Julia to have lost control of her senses at some point in the evening, and worry about what repercussions her carelessness will bring with the new dawn.
The ragged energy of Julia, enhanced by handheld camerawork, quickly turns the movie into something of a high-wire act. At any moment, the plot threatens to become too ludicrous, Julia too terrible, the improvisations too indulgent, or Swinton too ostentatious. Astonishingly, none of these mishaps happen. Zonca manages keep increasing the stakes, all the while shifting his filmís tone. Julia oscillates from harrowing to hilarious, often within seconds, yet never feels miscalculated. The energy that is generated here is so palpable, and so relentless, that itís impossible not to be thrilled by Zoncaís transgressive spirit in realizing such a character. Continually re-inventing itself and changing directions, Juliaís exacting throughlines become clear only in retrospect, but the energy that it generates is likely to linger long after one stops watching it.