We like to believe that most actors, directors, and filmmakers create for the sake of art rather than for the paycheck. Yes, everyone needs to make a living, but how can one justify a $20 million dollar paycheck? There is nothing more refreshing than to see an award-winning actress step out of the limelight to take on a role with no guarantee of praise, career advancement, or even much money. Tilda Swinton approaches Julia with an all-or-nothing attitude, creating an ungodly eccentric character and evoking an impressive array of audience emotions. Director Erick Zonca wants you to enjoy his film, but he certainly doesn’t want you to like the titular character. Julia’s (Swinton) life is a mess. She’s a raging alcoholic with a thing for married men. After losing her job her life merely consists of an endless cycle of partying, going home with someone she just meets, blacking out, and then doing it again the next day. Even if she wasn’t addicted to this dismal lifestyle, Julia wouldn’t exactly be a ball of sunshine. Her ex-boyfriend, Mitch (Saul Rubinek), is the only person who shows her any compassion, and she throws his kindness back in his face, along with some added expletives.

During a pathetic attempt at attending an AA meeting, Julia meets an odd, young woman named Elena (Kate del Castillo) who happens to be her neighbor. In typical Julia fashion, Elena’s benevolence and attempt at lending a hand is shot down in a malicious fashion. It isn’t until the ladies’ second chance meeting that Elena reveals the true reason she’d like to have a relationship with Julia: so they can kidnap her son, Tom (Aidan Gould). She tries to recruit Julia to help liberate Tom from his electronics-kingpin grandfather in exchange for $50,000 she claims to have in Mexico. Even in a post-drunken stupor Julia can see the absurdity of the idea and turns her down. But on second thought, $50,000 sounds like a good deal, and Julia is in.

From this point, Julia’s downward spiral becomes a freefall and she gets into one mess after another. She starts by making Elena’s kidnapping plans her own in an effort to make some extra cash. She nabs the eight-year-old boy and takes off into the desert. Her initial treatment of the boy is unsettling and difficult to watch, but as the days go on Julia can’t keep drowning her motherly instincts in pools of alcohol. The whole idea of Tom starting to trust his captor and Julia showing signs of a heart sounds tiresome, but between the uniqueness of the heroine and the boy’s self-righteousness, their relationship is completely novel and fascinating.

Just as Julia never stops running from the authorities, Julia never slows down one bit. Even during scenes with heavy dialogue, your heart will be racing, anticipating Julia’s next step. Zonca takes the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions, forcing you to sympathize with the woman he’s taught you to loathe. He uses every ounce of Swinton’s talent, and she’s got plenty to spare. Swinton carries the movie. Julia has a strong story and features great performances by the supporting cast, but it is Swinton who breathes life into the script and makes it an exceptional piece of work. She is completely enveloped in this role and holds nothing back.

It’s devastating that Julia is being pushed aside as a mere art film when it’s deserving of so much more. Perhaps with more advertising, this film and Swinton could have gotten the praise they deserve. After being so deeply moved by a film, I hoped to see more on the special features menu than deleted scenes, a trailer, and some previews. Julia is so enthralling, it’ll leave you wanting more even after a 144-minute film. Material that would elucidate Swinton’s curiously fabulous performance would have made this disc complete. Perhaps some commentary by Zonca discussing his methods or a featurette in which Swinton could enlighten the audience about her methods would have been an appropriate addition.

At least what we’re given is quality material. The first scene is an extension of one included in the film. It’s clear the extra segment is omitted in an effort to keep the plot simpler, but it’s too bad the relationship between Julia and Mitch wasn’t given more screen time. At one point in the film Julia returns home from a typical night out, completely inebriated, and is helped to her door by the cab driver. Not only is it hilarious, but in the final film the scene feels as though it’s been cut short. It also makes sense of how Julia winds up where she wakes up the next morning. Even the scenes that are absolutely unnecessary are riveting, enjoyable, and make you wish they were included in the film just to get 20 more minutes of Julia.

The Magnolia Home Entertainment preview selection includes Mutant Chronicles, Surveillance, The Girlfriend Experience, Food Inc., and an advertisement for HDNet and the HDNet Movies channel.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.