13 April 2014
Erick Zonca’s 2008 thriller, Julia, manipulates perspective to increase tension for viewers. Julia (Tilda Swintob) is in nearly every scene of the film, the expected probability with Julia being the title character; clearly, Julia is making a claim that it is a character-driven narrative, despite all its action and plot twists. Because Julia is in almost every moment of the film, the audience basically knows nothing Julia herself does not know; the audience has a limited perspective on the narrative because Julia herself, a rather unstable protagonist (who is also her own antagonist), is often unsure what will happen next. Had the audience been given an omniscient perspective, as is the case with more standard, formulaic films (even thrillers), viewers would be less tense and anxious throughout the thriller, pacifying themselves with information Julia does not know.
For example, after Julia kidnaps Tom and the two go on the run, Julia repeatedly talks with Tom’s (Aidan Gould) wealthy grandfather. Eventually, because Julia is not career criminal, Tom’s grandfather figures out exactly who Julia is. He reveals to her, over the phone, that a friend of hers has come to see him; the friend is Mitch (Saul Rubinek), who took it upon himself to contact Tom’s grandfather hoping to help Julia out of this latest, and most colossal, of her messes. All this time, the audience has stayed with Julia, watching her on the run, trying to blackmail a millionaire. Had the audience been offered an omniscient perspective, viewers would have seen a scene between Mitch and Tom’s grandfather; the audience would have had more information about their arrangements, as opposed to Julia hearing a vague retelling of their meeting while on the phone with Tom’s grandfather. This moment builds tension; along with Julia, the audience learns new details and finally hears there is a reasonable chance Julia will actually get the ransom money she is after. Yet, there are so many variables: what if Tom’s grandfather is lying, or what if Mitch is not as trustworthy as originally thought? Julia does not know, and so the audience does not know, adding more thrill to the thriller.
However, and interestingly, Zonca breaks this established perspective four times in the film. First, long before the kidnapping, Julia rides in the backseat of a taxi with a male friend; as usual, she is drunk and tries getting the man to come inside her apartment. The man refuses, and he pushes Julia out of the car, slamming the cab’s door. The audience, outside with Julia, sees her trip and fall. Then, the camera cuts and the audience jumps back into the taxi, this time without Julia. All of a sudden, the viewers are without their title character and overhear a conversation between the taxi driver and Julia’s friend. There seems to be no reason the audience is pushed out of Julia’s perspective, gaining a more omniscient moment in the taxi, and, almost immediately, the scene cuts and the audience returns to their limited perspective.
This same thing happens twice with Tom. The first is when Tom gets himself dressed in his new clothes, after he and Julia cross the border of Mexico. Tom is alone in the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror. Then, he walks over to the bathtub and sees cockroaches in the tub. Disgusted he leaves the bathroom and the audience returns to Julia. Also, after Julia’s one-night-stand with Diego, Tom awakens in a strange bed with a small girl. Scared and confused, Diego arrives, gets him up, and escorts him to Julia, who has been asleep in another room. Again, there is no clear reason the perspective changes here. The audience is only away from Julia for moments, but it does seem strange to change perspectives abruptly when the film clearly attempts to remain true to Julia’s scope.
The last time it happens is when Diego gets murdered. Julia, Tom, Diego, and the men who kidnapped Tom from Julia are all in the bathroom, where Tom has been help hostage. A heated argument breaks out, and Julia tells the kidnappers Diego sold them out (a lie). The kidnappers take Diego to another room, and the camera follows them. When the kidnappers shut the bathroom door on Julia and Tom, the audience leaves Julia’s perspective once again. In this last example, the audience sees Diego thrown to a chair, arguing continue, and a gun pointed at Diego. Julia does not know what is happening; she is on the other side of the door. Although the film, which is nearly two and a half hours stays with Julia for all but, roughly, four minutes, Zonca clearly breaks his established point of view at times.
Even though there is no clear answer as to why Zonca subtly, randomly, and quickly subverts the film’s perspective, it does make an interesting suggestion. The viewers and Julia are close through the duration of the film; Zonca keeps it that way with this perspective. Yet, when perspective changes, there are a few things the viewers know that Julia does not: her friend’s rude remarks after she left the taxi, Tom’s experience with cockroaches in the motel bathroom, his face when he awoke next to a strange little girl in a strange bed, and what Diego’s last moments looked like. But, what if there were things Julia knows, things that take place within the narrative that she keeps from the audience?
What happened to Elena (Kate del Castillo)? The audience sees Julia and Elena fight the day of Tom’s kidnapping. And, this is not just any fight; these two, particularly Elena, who is mentally unstable (to match Julia’s alcoholism), scream at each other, and Elena looks as though she is about to charge Julia. But, the scene cuts. All of a sudden Julia is seated at a bar, covered in red lighting, having a drink. She does not speak at first, but it is clear she is shaken up. After the kidnapping, when Julia watches news footage from a motel room television, a voiceover reveals Elena, the authorities number one suspect in Tom’s kidnapping, has also gone missing. To authorities, this must seem like a sign of Elena’s guilt, but, to viewers, the question becomes…where’s Elena?
This question is never answered. That could be because Elena’s whereabouts has no impact on the title character, Julia. Or, it could be because Julia killed Elena. As the film progresses, viewers see how far Julia will go to protect herself, and that includes killing people. It certainly is not unlikely she would kill Elena, hide her body, and hope authorities assume the insane mother is the kidnapper, giving Julia more time to finalize her blackmailing scheme.
A pendulum swings both ways; if there are details the audience gets to know that Julia does not, it stands to reason there are details Julia gets to know that the audience does not. Perhaps this is why Zonca breaks perspective occasionally throughout the film. Viewers stay very close to Julia; they are always in her proximity, and they nearly always share her perspective. Yet, Zonca’s experiment in perspective cleverly opens up opportunities to read between the lines of the film, offering ambiguity and satisfying expectation of tension from audiences looking for this thriller to thrill.
This slanted reading on Julia, suggesting Julia conceals secrets from the audience, like the murder of Elena, gives a special twist to the film’s last line, which is Julia telling Tom, “Okay, I am going to bring you to your mother now.”