The endless need, the bad decisions and painful fallout that trail alcoholics like a pack of starving dogs have long drawn actors looking to lose themselves in that complicated tangle of darkness. To get all the way there, really there, as Nicolas Cage did in "Leaving Las Vegas," requires exposing a very ugly place.
Tilda Swinton is the latest to disappear into that morally murky pit in the drama-thriller "Julia." As a fading beauty with money problems and an unquenchable thirst, the actress is disturbingly dead-on and the place she takes us is very ugly indeed.
With her tangle of red curls, impossibly long legs, bare wisps of dresses all set atop 6-inch spiked heels, Julia weaves through a middling L.A. bar scene in search of solace in a glass and someone to go home with before closing time. You hope you will grow to like her, to find something about this lost soul that will touch you.
But nothing about Julia is easy. She is a troublesome drinker, not interested in redemption, spending her first waking moments most days trying to lose the bitter taste of a bad night.
She is also a troublesome character. Writer-director Erick Zonca and Aude Py, who collaborated on the screenplay, soon turn the drama into an extortion thriller when Julia is drawn into, then co-opts, a get-rich-quick kidnap scheme, and a child, 9-year-old Tom (Aidan Gould), is thrown in front of this train wreck of a life.
From the beginning, Julia's self-absorption and denial are formidable. Before the kidnapping sends her into a deeper tailspin, there's an apartment, a reasonably respectable job in real estate, and possibilities. After she's fired, we find that Julia is not only a drunk with a grab bag of lies to get her by, but a grifter, her need for money more likely than alcohol to push her over desperation's cliff -- or in this case send her racing across the border to Mexico.
Swinton is an actress with so many tasty morsels to her credit -- the bloodless attorney in "Michael Clayton" and the fiercely protective mother in "The Deep End" who would have spit Julia out like a bad seed -- this role should have been a rich, meaty center cut. That it isn't is a great loss. With a singular careless act, one that will be followed by countless others, the possibility of compassion for Julia begins to dry up under the hot desert sun where she hides Tom for a while; the chance for Swinton to give us a fully realized character soon evaporates along with it.
Still, the actress is relentless in mining the depths of what she's been given, sparing us nothing: a midnight fall out of a cab that leaves her scraped and bloody; a wayward breast stuffed back into her clothes as she staggers into another too-bright morning. But it is with the boy that the road gets perilous. It is difficult to watch the lethal switchbacks and blind curves rise up, with Julia caught in the headlights of the tragedy barreling toward her.
Zonca's first feature "The Dreamlife of Angels" and the handful of shorts that preceded it established him as a devotee of realism. The filmmaker has said he made a conscious decision to strip Julia of any maternal instincts to keep the film and the character from falling into conventional traps. A good argument if being unconventional doesn't become a trap by another name.
As Julia struggles to survive her bad decisions, the film struggles to survive Julia. We never get a good look at her demons, just the havoc they wreak. The stakes get higher, a bad end looms large and Julia drinks less. But her stab at sobriety and accountability comes too late. We stopped caring a long time ago.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, some violent content and brief nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes
Playing: In limited release, including Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Hollywood and Laemmle Monica 4 in Santa Monica