The 73rd Virgin says... We begin Mothers Week with maybe the most unmotherly, hateful female character this side of Fatal Attraction. And she's the protagonist.
Julia is played by the towering Tilda Swinton, perhaps best known as the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or maybe as the 400 year old transgender in “Orlando”. I forgot about her Oscar in 2007. Her publicity photos make her look like David Bowie's lost albino sister, but here, at 47-years old with full makeup and trashy clothes, she is quite a physical presence. All the supporting actors are good and Swinton is organically hilarious and terrifying. She is in every scene across 2 hours and 24 minutes and throws off insane sparks the entire time. The Netflix cover art pretty much describes the character.
Lotta clips below, I know, but I don't have the vocabulary to describe the performance.
Julia is an alcoholic fortyish advertising agent who is still raggedly attractive but fading fast. She is fired within the first ten minutes but continues waking up in strange beds despite the pleas of her AA mentor Mitch (who refers to her in passing as "a big giraffe"). That part is easy.
But from there the story veers into some of the most unpredictable territory I’ve ever seen. Julia meets a pitiful Mexican mother at an AA meeting who is at first obsequious but then starts recruiting her to kidnap her child. Julia's reaction is bemused disbelief. But, she needs the money. So she gets a gun on credit from one of her less seemly contacts in the ghetto and expects to pay for it with some up-front money. Turns out the mother is utterly nuts. The look on Julia's face when she realizes she's met someone crazier than herself is priceless.
No matter. Julia decides to freelance the kidnapping and collect some unspecified ransom for herself from the boy's wealthy grandfather. The scenes with the kidnapped child are about as funny and disturbing as anything I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction.
Every time we think we’re headed to a normal conclusion, the plot gets 10% weirder and heads off in a new direction. I couldn't wait to see how it ends. At several critical junctures, Julia ties one on and then has to sleep it off. Inevitably, she loses control of the situation only to have to pull it all back together.
In a great scene she tries to collect ransom money from a bus station locker, but freaks out and realizes how close she is to getting caught. Eventually they accidentally cross into Mexico.
At about 1 ½ hours into the movie is the first remote sign of tenderness where she cuddles the boy briefly in bed. Of course, she's hung over and naked with upper lady parts showing that he understandably stares at, but at least it's a start.
Turns out, Mexico is a better place to negotiate from. Except it's, you know, Mexico. They fall in with a greasy operator, Diego, who buys her drinks. Once again she overdrinks and oversleeps and loses the boy to kidnappers. In one of the best scenes a schlumpy frightened taxi driver (Gaston Peterson) delivers a message to Julia and Diego about the kid. As the scene progresses he becomes incrementally less schlumpy and more dangerous.
From here the tension and violence ramp up considerably as Julia, still in stupid open sandals with little spike heels, does the unthinkable by following one contact after another through Tijuana and eventually getting to the kidnappers' den. The last 20 minutes is almost non-stop shouting, pointing, hitting and occasional shooting. It's exhausting. But it's not an action movie. Julia chatters, lies, obfuscates, threatens, lies some more, pleads, inflates and deflates the ransom to suit the purpose of the moment, all the while trying to protect a kid she doesn't like from kidnappers with whom she has much in common. She lies to the kid, to the grandfather, to Mitch, to the kidnappers about each other, etc. A lifetime of practice at lying and manipulation is paying off.
In her last preparatory nap, she oversleeps but for once isn't hung over. And in Julia's world, we all become Santos (Horacio Garcia Rojas), our mouths hanging open.
Depending on your interpretation, the final nighttime scene on a Mexican freeway median either represents Julia's redemption or a final lie she tells before the fade-out. Ebert sees it as redemptive.
In an earlier scene when one of the kidnappers asks her name, she replies, “Gloria”, which is probably a clue about where the character has arrived. For you young people, “Gloria” is the Gena Rowlands – John Cassavetes potboiler, which features a mob woman who hates children protecting a little boy from murderous mobsters. This isn't a re-make because Julia is an absolute monster compared to Gloria, but the reference is apt.
I rate it at 4 sheep because it may not have needed to be quite so long and some of the middle scenes between the sleepovers, the kidnapping and Mexico seemed slow and repetitive. Ebert gives it his highest rating of 4 stars, (25% better than, say, Last of The Mohicans?) which seems a little insupportable. But I bet 25 years from now there will be Swinton festivals where this performance is analyzed and celebrated. She is amazing to watch and the story, at it's best, is completely engrossing.
P.S. With a budget of roughly 6 million, this grossed about 1.4 million worldwide. And its copyright holders, Les Productions Bagheera - Le Bureau - StudioCanal - France 3 Cinéma - Saga – MIG, the geniuses behind one of the more striking actresses of our time in a 144 minute international epic with a 4-star rating from Roger Ebert, won't allow ANY fan-boy clips on YouTube, except the 2-minute trailer. International sharpies. They sure know how to market and protect their property.