The first warning I need to get across here is that you shouldn't mix up this film's title with that of another, similarly-named 2009 film starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. The latter was JULIE & JULIA, which was a light-hearted look at Julia Child's culinary travails. While that film was good, it doesn't stand a chance at being on my year-end top 10 list, which is the opposite of what I can say about JULIA, a ceaselessly gripping thriller that initially looks like it'll be a story about an alcoholic woman, and later looks like it'll be a story about kidnapping, yet ends up being a lot more than either of those two things.
While JULIA is ultimately about redemption, that resolution isn't brought to us in a tidy, perfectly packaged way. In fact, basically everything that happens in this film is very much untidy, disorganized and reckless, which one expects is far more of an accurate representation of how kidnappings actually take place than what we normally see in the dozens of films that have depicted the carrying out of that crime. Yes, the title character (Tilda Swinton) kidnaps a boy and asks for money in return, but the circumstances that lead to this happening are far from anything you've seen before, and the interaction that we get to see between Julia and the child she has taken is far more authentic than anything we're used to seeing. This is one of those rare exceptions in which a director doesn't fall into the trap of making the victim a completely helpless and good-hearted soul and the villain a completely dehumanized and vicious character. The film isn't reluctant to expose the child's spoiled personality, and it's even less reluctant to show us that, while Julia is a deeply flawed, cheating, pathological liar, she's not devoid of good. I wouldn't trust Julia with my money, but I'd love to have a 5-hour long conversation with her.
Perhaps my affinity for such an ostensibly evil character is due to Tilda Swinton's immense talent. As a character, Julia goes through dozens of emotional stages; Tilda Swinton has 10 times more work to do here than most actors do whenever they take on a role, and she takes everything the script gives her, and fiercely brings an absolutely astonishing lead performance as the title character. I wonder if the fact that this film is so small, combined with the fact that Swinton won an Oscar so recently, will make it hard for her to get recognized, but I hope it doesn't, because she's simply incredible here. I didn't think her work in MICHAEL CLAYTON was award-worthy, but for this performance I'd give her five Oscars if I could. Ever since she starred in THE WAR ZONE 10 years ago, she's never failed to impress, and the greatness of what she does with the role of JULIA is central to the film's success.
During its last act the film makes an interesting decision to change gears a little bit and focus on something we've seen treated several times (and not always all that well) in other films: the issue of kidnapping for ransom money in Mexico. Julia gets into a sticky situation when the child she stole is stolen from HER by Mexicans who believe she is the kid's mother and a wealthy American. Although during this act the film continues to be every bit as entertaining and tense as it was before, it has to be admitted that the scenes that came prior to it, which focused solely on Julia's interaction with the boy and on how to get everything (and herself) together, were far more interesting. Inevitably, there are two or three things that happen a little too conveniently during this act in order to reach the film's final scene, but it's worth it, because the final scene will have you on pins and needles: it takes place on a highway with cars driving by extremely quickly, and the level of tension doesn't let up for a second.
The reason why JULIA isn't just about alcoholism or just about kidnapping is easily guessed from the film's title. As the RT consensus correctly states, this is a character study. Sure, it's a dark one, but the last shot right before the film ends gives you the impression that there may be a glimmer of hope for things to get better. The great thing about this, though, is that the film isn't dead-set in telling us that Julia has become a better person. The film ends on a seemingly haphazard note and without giving 100% closure to the plot, which can lead to several theories on what Julia will do next and whether or not she's even changed at all. JULIA is a surefire winner thanks to its relentlessly gripping pace and to Swinton's piercingly raw and devastating performance.