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Julia is a down-on-her-luck, fortysomething alcoholic. She's at her wit's end when she meets a woman at an AA meeting and is soon immersed in a kidnap-for-ransom scheme involving the woman's nine-year-old son, Tom, the victim of a nasty custody battle. Events quickly careen out of control, and Julia finds herself on the lam in Mexico, kid in tow, trying to stay a step ahead of low-life local hoods who, believing Tom to be her son, nab the boy and demand the money in return for sparing his life.


Although the entire cast in this low-budget thriller is excellent, Julia is really noteworthy as an Oscar-worthy, tour-de-force display of sheer acting brilliance by the dazzling Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), who throws herself into this blowsy, ballsy role with such abandon it will make your head spin. Swinton easily delivers the year's best performance -- male or female -- so far, and it's a shame that this independently-made, tough-minded melodrama will likely get only limited theatrical exposure. Acting honors are also owed to Saul Rubinek, who plays a key role in the film's climax as Julia's ex-boyfriend and confidante. Kate del Castillo (Under the Same Moon) really only turns up in the film's establishing scenes but is wonderfully effective as Elena, the boy's volatile and colorful mother. As nine-year-old Tom, Aidan Gould is understated and neatly effective in a role that requires a range of emotions. Bruno Bichir is amusingly one-note in his best baddie mode as Diego, the lead Mexican bandit.


Making his English-language debut, director Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife Of Angels) keeps things moving at the pace of a speeding freight train, never letting his star come up for air and allowing her to bring many different shades to this fascinating, unsympathetic woman whose life is a complete mess. Zonca effortlessly turns what starts out as a character study into some outrageously juicy stuff. The shift is tone is seamless and will blow you away. This is one hell of a ride.


At 138 minutes, the film is overlong and could have used some tightening in the latter portions when Julia and Tom get to Mexico. The portrayal of Mexico's criminal element also borders on stereotype and is mostly played in one dimension by a group of fine local stars who aren't given much opportunity for subtlety.


A scene in the bus station where Julia arranges the ransom money to be dropped off is nail-biting, sweat-inducing suspense at its finest, allowing Swinton an ace-acting showcase to boot.


Don't be flummoxed by the film's title. It has nothing to do with the Oscar-winning Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave drama released in 1977. In fact, although not a remake, this Julia much closer in tone and spirit to the 1980 Gena Rowlands film Gloria, which was later remade in 1999 with Sharon Stone. Have we sufficiently confused you now?


Considering the indie style and minimal marketing budget, your best chance will probably be on DVD, where it is not to be missed.



Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.