Everyone's Looking for Something
L.A. is a wonderful, wonderful, magical place.
—Julia (Tilda Swinton)
“What you see may not be what you’re gonna get.” Julia (the astonishing Tilda Swinton) talks a big game: on a dance floor, she writhes and smiles, clinks her ice cubes and leans into her newest acquaintance, whoever he is. With “Sweet Dreams” marking the moment, she lurches, waking the next morning in the back seat of a car, her crumpled sex partner tucking in his shirt and checking his wallet. As he reaches to help her from the car, Julia pushes him away: “Don’t touch me,” she says, checking her purse and staggering into the sunlight.
At the start of Julia, Julia’s routine is already old. Her boss fires her as soon as she arrives—late. She’s outraged, convinced that getting drunk “one or two times” doesn’t merit dismissal. Her sponsor Mitch (Saul Rubinek) is less sanguine. He’s duly mad that she’s lost another gig, asking him for money, and inconsistent about going to meetings. When she does agree to go, she’s bored by the regularity of the stories, mothers who sabotage their daughters and husbands who can’t keep a job. And then Elena (Kate del Castillo) comes at her with a new one. Both manic and despairing, Elena has a plan: she wants to kidnap her son from his grandfather, a wealthy electronics magnate. If Julia helps her, she’ll pay her $50,000. “I’m rich,” she insists, her eyes rolling in her head and her arms open wide, “I have more money than I need.”
As Julia surmises, Elena is “fucking nuts.” Still, the scheme bothers Julia, who believes, as much as she believes in anything, that she deserves a break. She pitches her version of the kidnapping—the “doublecross of a lifetime,” in which she’ll betray Elena but no one will “get hurt”—to her old friend Nick (Jude Ciccolella). Now sober and married, he’s dismayed at Julia’s willful blindness, her desperate inability to see herself. With Mitch also trying to impress on her the inevitable cost of her refusal to see (he’s got his own self-defining horror story, wherein he’s drunk and throws his young daughter into a wall), Julia turns to a street hustler she doesn’t quite know (Eugene Byrd), convincing him to sell her a gun she’ll pay for after her deal goes down.
Of course, none of this goes like it should, with Elena melting down and Julia panicking in a particularly brutal way. Still, like Gena Rowland’s Gloria before her, she ends up on the run with an eight-year-old kid, Tom (Aidan Gould), a kid who’s half Mexican and so, she learns, soon enough, the object of his grandfather’s simultaneous devotion and revulsion. And, as skewed as Julia’s compass plainly is, this appalls her.
That doesn’t mean she won’t use it to her ostensible advantage. Having kidnapped the boy—wholly ineptly—she has him holed up in a motel room. She calls the grandfather, her voice fakely hoarse as she leaves instructions on where to leave a bag of money. The child looks up at her, skinny and afraid and still wearing the little bathing suit he had on when his lakeside picnic was so abruptly ended. To soothe him, his captor spins a story about his sainted mother, who really wants to see him. “She has to be careful,” lies Julia, “because of your grandfather. He really hates her on account of her being Mexican. He’s a fucking racist to her.” Tom’s eyes go wide and Julia can’t stop herself. “Your grandfather,” she rambles, “He’s just jealous because he knows he’s some tired old fuck who’s in a wheelchair and is gonna die soon and your mother, she’s wonderful.”
Incoherent and scary but vaguely right, Julia’s account doesn’t help her to anticipate all that will go wrong during her adventure with Tom. Erick Zonca’s film sends her into a garish netherland populated by Mexican gangsters and thugs, men who have the sort of experience with kidnapping Julia can’t imagine. And yet, as she runs from American authorities, Tom’s grandfather’s minions, and even Mitch, she’s pressed into closer and closer contact with Tom. Their intimacy is a function of dire circumstances and mistakes. In Tijuana, the snarly villain Santos (Horacio Garcia Rojas) assumes she’s the boy’s mother, as does Diego (Bruno Bichir), whose efforts to scam her work to the limited point of getting her drunk and into his bed.
Like Zonca’s previous films, 1998’s The Dreamlife of Angels and The Little Thief (1999), Julia is a mix of fantasy and tragedy, this time with the violence amped up and the background noisy and lurid (the bars where Julia loses herself are suffused in red light, her apartment drearily cluttered, her faced smashed-in-looking even when she’s sober). Even as it’s clear to you that she’s liking being attached to Tom (he’s a weirdly sensible eight-year-old, even in the midst of this non-sensible situation), she can’t feature it, and so keeps making wrong choices, endangering him as she has become so used to endangering herself, thoughtless and delirious when she needs desperately to be sane.
You can’t help but be furious with her, and the movie turns downright nutty when she pulls out her gun, but still, Swinton is stunning. Set against a series of dreadful and sad locations, she inhabits Julia’s heaving self-destruction in a way that makes her seem sympathetic, even courageous. But there’s more going on here than a wretched character made palatable: Julia also taps into contexts, the perpetual violence that comprises crossing borders—from the U.S. to Mexico, self-abuse to criminality, childhood to maturity, irony to responsibility. Julia embodies all of this, journeying back and forth, and at last, out of herself.