It’s the quintessential Academy Award job, a brave and vicious turn from a critically-beloved actress known for her vintage class. The kind of work that leads to writers typing, “Who knew she had it in her?” Not unlike Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning descent into ugliness and despair in 2003’s Monster, when the stunning, radiant actress morphed into a schlubby, disgusting prostitute-turned-murderer. If you went into that film blind and there’d been no opening credits, Theron’s name would be most likely remain silent when it came time to play the guessing game of “Who’s that star?”
It’s similarly difficult to accept the fact that it’s Tilda Swinton on screen while watching Julia, a nobody-other-than-critics-knows-it-exists independent thriller from last year, directed by French filmmaker Erick Zonca. In an otherwise strong but flawed film, Swinton is grade-A. Written by Zonca and Aude Py, Julia is a dark look at one desperate, 40-year-old woman’s frantic downward spiral, which she brings upon herself by kidnapping the 8-year-old son of her fellow Alcoholics Anonymous groupmate, a mentally-unstable Mexican woman. She promises to give Julia (Swinton) buckets of cash if she helps steal her estranged son from his grandfather, an electronic tycoon who hates the fact that his grandson’s mother is of Mexican descent. Julia’s life is a series of drunken hookups and flimsy values, made worse after she’s fired from her job. On the edge of hopelessness, she orchestrates her own swipe-the-kid plan that goes completely to hell, though she does end up with the kid, not for lack of scaring the piss out of him (wearing a creepy black mask, she puts a pistol to his head and then tosses him into her trunk). The rest of Julia’s idea devolves into a nightmare of debt, crime, and run-ins with con men in Tijuana.
Throughout all of the film’s realistic intensity, Swinton is dynamite. The role of “Julia Harris” is a sharp left turn from the Scottish actress’s recent work; earning heaps of praise for her co-starring gigs in Michael Clayton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Burn After Reading, she’s proven to be surgical when embodying uptight sophistication. Which is why she’s such a revelation in Julia; here, Swinton is indistinguishable, talking with a sailor’s mouth one second, telling a sleazy gun-toting delinquent “I wouldn’t wipe my ass with you!” the next. There’s hardly a 10-second stretch in the film without Swinton in sight, and she holds the production down with pure muscle. ‘Julia Harris’ starts off as a wretched low-life, escalates into a menacing degenerate, and then unexpectedly upgrades into a sympathetic misfit—–As conceived by screenwriters Zonca and Py, the character is ticking timebomb beaming with dimensions, and Swinton nails them all. Even when the film itself enters an over-the-top climax, one that demands suspension-of-belief to accept its absurdity (how Julia and the little boy survive a few moments is anybody’s guess), Swinton literally saves face.
Too bad she won’t snag enough nominations over the next two months, let alone win any statues. Julia received a lowball theatrical release last May on its way to a second life on DVD, yet even in that market it hasn’t ignited. No real Oscar push for Swinton is underway, though she totally deserves one. Some critics have pegged this performance as a dignified actress merely slumming it, grappling with a down-and-dirty assignment simply to show that she can, that she’s not above the grime. Some critics, in that same breath, are delusional. Julia would be an intriguing premise undone by too many implausabilities, and not much more, if guided by another star.
Whenever Meryl Streep is on stage accepting trophies for Julie & Julia (it’ll probably happen more than once), know that there’s another Julia better known as Tilda Swinton out there who never got a fair shot. After all, awards season has never been prone to justice.
Julia trailer, after the jump: