Film noir is built on things that go wrong; plans are scuppered, the gun jams, love goes up in smoke. Anti-heroes don’t even have good intentions to fall back on. They’re ravenously selfish, so it’s tough arguing they don’t deserve their fate. Luckily, people don’t watch noirs to empathize with the protagonists (unless they’ve just ripped off a bank); people watch noirs to feel better about their mistakes. Take Julia, a new noir with a drunk as its heroine. She has all the control over her life that a hand-grenade has. Even as her crime sets in motion, you picture her face on the evening news. She’s alluringly doomed, like every girl in this no-luck genre.
Forced at attend A.A. meetings in L.A., Julia is a drinker who hates alcoholics. She’s a woman who retches at the thought of pity, who feels snakes bite her when people talk of a “higher power”. But then one of the wackos from her therapy group makes her an offer: help me kidnap my son in exchange for a fee. Julia has all the maternal instinct of a vending machine, but the money sounds good to her. Besides, she’s just had a brain-wave: why not kidnap the kidnap victim from his mother, and double the ransom? She may not know much about kidnapping, guns, little boys, or sobriety – but she can think on her feet. Surely that’ll be enough.
Tilda Swinton plays Julia like a smart woman trapped by her self. She’s too bright to blame others, but too inured to drink to ever stop. It’s a great part for Swinton because she’s wasted playing “vulnerable”. She’s best playing women who act like men (that is, men in movies, or “people” as they’re known in the real world): flawed, but not about to change; self-aware, but not without blind spots; courageous, when there’s no-one else to turn to…assertive, even when they’re lost. Swinton’s great chameleon features mean her face can show all these different sides. So when she’s running a man over she looks like she’s got frozen piss in her veins. And when she’s mothering a child, she looks like her heart could bake bread.
Julia plays on the fact that its lead could be capable of anything. The main tension in the movie comes from not knowing if Julia likes money over being able to live with herself. She does some pretty terrible things, including pointing a gun at a pre-teen. And because it’s Tilda playing Julia (as opposed to – say – Julia Roberts) the worst seems dramatically possible, not forgetting Julia is a film noir. Without ever making its heroine behave as a man might in her shoes, the movie still pushes what a woman is allowed to do on screen. This isn’t a movie where the heroine even (gasp!) has a boyfriend. There isn’t even a mandatory crying scene!
When Julia crosses into Mexico, it’s true you get the usual shanty-town-crime-orgy view of the country, but even this seems present to make Julia look undependable, not just Mexican law enforcement. She goes to bed with the first kind Mexican she meets not because she’s lonely, but because she likes sex. The fact this is a dumb thing to do in her circumstances is mitigated by the fact she’s a drunk. Even when she has a plan, alcohol takes precedence. The Mexico she encounters is almost like a bad-tequila-hangover of Mexico, a warning. The movie comes down to a choice: Julia is either who everyone – Julia, most of all – thinks she is, or she’s someone better. In the final scene, she’s forced at gun-point to a reckoning.
Film noir is good at how we learn about ourselves. We’re always wrong (at first) about who we are. That’s why new experiences are so important. We’re only predictable when we act self-consciously. Throw in something too big to think through (like having a kid; or committing a felony) and there’s no telling how we’ll react. In film noir, the hero always assumes they’ve seen more of life than anybody. In Julia, the hero assumes you have to be a mother to have a child. It isn’t anything the boy does that brings Julia to her senses. It’s just that – in film noir – even wrong-doing can go awry.