Julia (Tilda Swinton) lays on a bed, her arms stretched above her as she plays with the curtains over the window. She swings her arms and the curtain flutters forward, the bright light from outside illuminating Julia’s face, then the curtain falls back over the window, her face cast out of the light.
Erick Zonker’s Julia (2008), which aired at Ebertfest last week, follows a middle-aging alcoholic, Julia, in her plot to kidnap an eight-year-old boy, Tom (Aidan Gould) and hold him ransom. Despite her best efforts, things go awry, which leads her to escaping across—actually, through—the border to Tijuana, where she runs into more trouble and develops a relationship with Tom.
Just like with the window curtains in Mexico, Julia spends much of the film manipulating the figurative lines between light and dark. She spends her time in bars drinking and hanging over men’s arms, she’s dismissive of her friends and wary of making any new ones, she attends Alcoholics Annonymous meetings, but only out of obligation, not out of any genuine desire to change. When a fellow AA woman, Elena (Kate del Castillo) asks for help kidnapping her son from his wealthy grandfather, Julia agrees to lend a hand, and then plots to double-cross Elena and hold the boy for a higher ransom. Essentially, Julia does not depict a character audiences should align with or cheer for; She is on the road to failing fantastically in all aspects of her life, and she accomplishes this in spaces suffused in darkness.
Her actions appear condemnable from the very start. While kidnapping a minor for financial gain, she brutally runs over his guard with her car. She locks the boy in her trunk and keeps him drugged and tied up for the first few days they spend together. Her immorality gets a physical manifestation through the mask she initially wears during the kidnapping: a black plastic mask that obscures her entire face.
The film lightens—but only slightly—in her relationship with Tom. After leaving him in the desert alone to go grab a drink, she returns at night, unable to find him in the dark. She panics, almost in a motherly way, driving wildly over the desert until she finds his body in the bright sunlight of the next morning. She restores him to consciousness, giving him water. From there their relationship improves, a strange, maternal intimacy coming over Julia. She still intends to return the boy to his grandfather once she gets her ransom money, yet she lies to Tom, telling him fantastic stories of how his mother is adored and how she will take him to see her.
The scene in which Julia plays with the light coming through the window occurs after a disturbing scene in which Tom lays next to Julia, who may be a bit drunk from the previous night, but is serenely affectionate. This seeming shift in her character is touching and is shot in more hazy light, showing the ambiguity of her morality. From there, however, Tom gets kidnapped by gangsters, and Julia delves back into reprehensible actions, murdering one man—albeit, apparently accidentally—and condemning another man to die in her attempt to escape with Tom. Her motives then come into question.
In the end, she ultimately sacrifices what she most wanted—two million dollars of ransom money—to save Tom. She picks him up into her arms at the end of the film after a narrow escape from the kidnapper/gangsters, and she carries Tom off down the dark street ahead of them.