Friday, March 19, 2010

Wild ride

If I tell you: "low budget indie, character study, brilliant lead performance by Tilda Swinton" you probably think you know what I'm talking about. Slow-paced, serious, probably with Swinton in deep historical drag, playing a Very Solemn and Important Person. Wrong.

Julia (2008) is a truly wild ride through the head of someone with a lot of screws loose (loosened mostly by alcohol). The kind of person who has never been able to keep a job, yet thinks if she can just pull off a successful child kidnapping, her life will be all straightened out. This is a character study wrapped in a loopy action film, with lots of unexpected turns and surprises along the way. (I hesitate to use the word twist, because a "twist" is usually convenient for the screenwriter, the characters or both. Nothing in this movie is convenient.)

The film was shot quick and dirty, probably on video and runs over two hours. Long films are long usually because (a) the story has to be that long, (b) the pace is slow, and/or (c) nobody could figure out what to get rid of. Julia is sloppy, but it is neither slow nor repetitive. It keeps going, even after you think you can't continue this trip any more with this lunatic. (This is the kind of movie with lots of scenes where people with guns scream at each other for prolonged periods of time.)

And yet, and yet...She grows, she changes, she learns. Not in the cliched way of a focus-grouped studio picture, but in the crucible of terrible experience, loss and disappointment. She figures out--at least a little bit--what's important, moves from narcissism to genuine caring for another person, and your gratitude for witnessing that journey justifies the length of the trip.

Incidentally, Swinton's Yank accent is absolutely flawless except for the word "medicine," which she pronounces in two syllables, Brit-style. I can't fault the French director, Erick Zonka, for not catching it, but it's a shame to break the illusion for even a second. And it's nice to see the oft-used but seldom-featured Saul Rubinek in a more rewarding role this time.

Some writers complain that we don't know where Julia's demons come from--how did she become a self-loathing drunk? Clearly, they are looking for a "rubber duck." My wife, the drive-by therapist figured this out years ago: It's all your mother's fault. There--analysis done. Hand me the popcorn.

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