Not all movies have a grand message or thought-provoking theme. Some movies are satisfied with being a beautiful orgy of sex and madness. Matthew A. Brown’s debut film, Julia, is a stylized bloodletting that pushes the limits of good taste and tests your allegiance to its heroine. A delightfully sordid affair that leaves you feeling all kinds of icky, this is a must-add to your October calendar.
Julia is the perfect companion piece to another wonderfully-dark 2014 revenge thriller, Blue Ruin. Only, instead of the protagonist being completely inept at the deadly arts, Julia Shames (Ashley C. Williams) was born to play the part. Wrapped beneath three layers of clothing and hiding behind giant “grandma” glasses, Julia is a cute but awkward girl who tries her best to be invisible. When she finally musters the courage to accept a date with the dashing Piers (Ryan Cooper), he repays that trust by drugging her and inviting his buddies over for a gang rape. Shown mainly through flashbacks, writer-director, Brown, puts us right in the middle of Julia’s gruesome ordeal. As Julia soaks in her bathtub afterwards, blood mingling with the water, you see the switch flip in her head and you know… this isn’t going to end well.
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Looking like Trinity’s understudy from The Matrix, Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi) thinks she has just the cure for what ills the wounded Julia. She introduces her to the mysterious Dr. Sgundud (Jack Noseworthy), who has developed a controversial therapy to empower female victims of crime. He has only two requirements for his patients: Do whatever he says, and never make things personal. It’s telling that we never see Dr. Sgundud in these opening scenes; he remains a disembodied, mesmerizing voice, as if he’s some buried piece of Julia’s subconscious, finally awakening from its slumber. Not surprisingly, Dr. Sgundud’s therapy isn’t exactly sanctioned by the American Psychiatric Association. With Sadie acting as her teacher, Julia quickly becomes a prized pupil.
Julia isn’t about people making speeches or opening their hearts to one another. It’s about harnessing the festering hatred in our heart to do unspeakable things. It’s cold, calculating, and remorseless to a frightening degree. One gets a vibe reminiscent of the standout, Under the Skin, in which women use men’s lechery and hubris to lure them to their doom. But unlike Johansson’s detached alien, Julia’s humanity compels her to become personally involved with the carnage. During one therapy session, Julia reveals she would have committing suicide long ago were if not for the persistent belief that she was destined for something special. As an instrument of brutality, Julia has truly found her calling.
While similar revenge films, such as I Spit on Your Grave, utilize stark realism to establish their tone, Julia uses a techno-noir wasteland of shadow and neon. A throbbing soundtrack accompanies the action, as if the entire movie was taking place next door to a nightclub. As an empowered Julia peels away the layers of her shell, we venture deeper into the night, where writhing bodies co-mingle and blades dance across exposed skin. Cinematographer, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, captures her unseemly transformation with vivid splatters of color shattering the darkness. All this darkness provides a safe place to hide as we observe Julia’s descent with a mixture of queasy horror and voyeuristic glee.
Brown’s direction remains off-kilter until the very end, using time shifts and perspective changes to always keep us guessing. His actors, especially Williams in the title role, convey much with very little. This is a story told not with words, but with cold stares and lingering close-ups. It’s a visceral experience, and Brown has us all dripping in guts by the end.
One could criticize Julia for being one-sided in its depiction of men, who come in two flavors here: wretched and downright loathsome. The male psyche is de-mystified and emasculated; embodied by a single organ that is easily manipulated with a little knowhow and a few precision cuts. It might be a difficult watch for some men, but it’s not really their story, anyway. For once, men play the role of helpless victim while resolute women decide their fate.
Ultimately, Julia is a haunting story about what happens when you indulge your darkest fantasies. Whereas most movies feature heroes entering shadowy worlds that are foreign to them, our hero feels right at home in this abyss. The pleasure of watching Julia comes from its unabashed embrace of the inescapable madness. This creepy thriller will crawl right under your skin.