Tilda Swinton in Erick Zonac's 'Julia' (Magnolia Pictures)

If an alcoholic wreck ever looks you in the eye and says, "Trust me," one word of advice: Don't, especially if her name is Julia Harris. Even if that clear-eyed glint appears genuinely sincere, and a wave of empathy impulsively washes over you for the magnificent woman who may still be residing deep within her soul, try to resist, because Julia will let you down every single time, the same way she's let herself down for her entire life.

Of course, when Julia is careening out of control in the person of Tilda Swinton, it's a much dicier proposition to turn your back on her. Swinton gives another odd, strangely magnetic performance in Julia, directed by Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels), which opened yesterday in New York. She's alternately a repulsive leech and a charming sexual creature, driven by her primal desires. She resembles a giant bug with corrosive acid running through her veins, like the Queen in Aliens; instead of defending her young, she's defending herself and her own warped view of priorities.

"Wreck" is an apt description for her character: her physical appearance is ravaged by neglect and alcoholism; her mental capacity is damaged to the point she can barely think straight; and her emotional stability is fried as though she were in a high-speed collision, bleeding out on the highway with all her parts scattered to the wind.

So why does she inspire such a strong impulse to embrace her warmly?



It's not for the aforementioned rough, drunken sensual charisma, amply demonstrated in the opening scene where we are introduced to Julia in her element: a loud and noisy bar, where she stands out in a sparkly green dress with a spaghetti strap slipping off her shoulder. She's tall and striking, all flaming red hair and pale skin, boisterous and demonstrative, and very, very drunk. In the morning she awakens in a stranger's car. Each has "morning after" regrets: he checks to see if his wallet's been stolen, she doesn't want to be touched. She makes her away across the gravel parking lot in high heels, walking in the slightly stumbling, overly precise manner of someone who's still smashed.

That leads to her losing a job secured for her by the sympathetic Mitch (Saul Rubinek). Their relationship is initially left vague. Is he a fellow addict, a former lover? It doesn't really matter; the relevant point is that he will stop helping Julia unless she attends group addiction meetings. She can barely stand the idea of men praying and women weeping, but one of the attendees introduces herself to Julia as a neighbor. Elena (Kate del Castillo) sends barely-disguised signals that all is not right in her world; she smiles readily and insincerely, as though she's been told she should smile more, and struggles to contain her emotions.

Julia ends up on Elena's couch after another one of her drunken, blackout nights, and Elena spills her guts before Julia quite knows what's happening, declaring that she intends to kidnap her son and needs Julia's help. Elena's boy is eight years old and living with his grandfather, Elena's father-in-law, who won't allow Elena to see the boy. Even a couple of minutes in Elena's presence makes it clear that the old man probably has good reason to keep her away, and that Julia should keep her distance as well, but when Elena claims she'll pay Julia $50,000 to assist her in a hare-brained scheme to grab the kid, Julia's initial resistance gives way to cold-hearted calculations.

Hatching her own kidnapping plot, she seeks out help from old drinking buddy / lover Nick (Jude Ciccolella) and small-time gangster Leon (Eugene Byrd). She changes her story with each of them, trying to play on their sympathies. She thinks she knows what they want to hear, yet is so self-centered that she's utterly clueless -- she tries to seduce Nick right under the nose of his new wife -- and can't fathom why they wisely decline to get involved.

Still, she's able to secure a gun from Leon and manages to kidnap Tommy (Aidan Gould). She's even rougher with the boy than she is with herself. She hasn't the slightest idea how to care for a child, and treats Tommy as something less than an animal. Her clumsy attempts to get paid off result in delays and more time that she's stuck with Tommy. Based on what we know of Julia up to that point, though, it would be disappointing if her brief relationship with Tommy changed her personality fundamentally.

Director Erick Zonca's debut feature, The Dreamlife of Angels (1998), followed two young, impoverished woman, one of whom, obviously, dreamed of a better life. The film was dreamy and somewhat ethereal at times, yet grounded in rough-hewn reality. Zonca made The Little Thief the following year, which I haven't seen; this is his first film since then. There is, though, an intimate, semi-documentary feel to Julia that is reminiscent of Dreamlife. Julia is middle-aged, but the dream of a better life remains alive. In her case, a "better life" remains undefined; maybe it means she can think about the day after tomorrow, instead of drinking away her pain every night. Thus, when the narrative eventually develops some well-earned tension, the stakes are higher, and the end sequence is no longer a foregone conclusion.

To say that Tilda Swinton gives a riveting performance as Julia is almost to damn her with faint praise. It's her character's story, of course, so we expect that she'll dominate the screen time, but even with all that exposure, there's never a hint of artifice or self-conscious primping to make herself look better as an actress. Even in her best moments, Julia is seldom more than someone to be pitied, yet there is someone else buried beneath the layers of self-defense mechanisms.

You can understand why someone would want to save her, or at least give her a good hug, and that's all because of what Swinton brings to the role. That makes Julia well worth seeking out.