Julia is what an exploitation film from the 2010s looks like. In the 60s and 70s, the disparity between the indies and the majors could be as extreme as going from Blood Feast to Robert Wise’s The Haunting. No one mistook one for the other. But with digital filmmaking, it’s easier to replicate the look of glossier films on a much lower budget. Today, Herschell Gordon Lewis might have made something resembling a real film (sure…) and critics might have approached it differently as a result. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie that wants to splash around in a shallow pool of severed penises and plucked eyeballs, it’s just a little confusing when they also appear to be as self serious as something like Julia.
The story is this: Julia Shames (Ashley C. Williams) is gang raped and nearly killed while on a date. She manages to limp home, covered in the industrial tarp in which she was meant to be buried. She numbs the pain in a lesbian bar, avoiding interactions with men whenever possible. One night, she overhears someone talking about an extreme form of therapy for women who’ve been similarly brutalized. It’s tactile and dangerous, but only for women in the most dire of circumstances. Julia signs up and along with more traditional therapy sessions, she’s assigned Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi), a fight coach of sorts. Sadie teaches Julia how to seduce random men at bars, luring them into a private space where she can the beat the shit out of them. The only rule is to not seek revenge against the men who actually harmed her.
Like I said, the film looks good. It doesn’t suffer from the monochromatic, post production, blue/grey tinkering that so many post-Saw indies leaned on. It’s visual ambitions are somewhere along the Nicolas Winding Refn spectrum, all rain-smeared neon lighting and pulsating music. But not all of the attempts at atmosphere work, a lot of it coming undone in an endless string of slow-motion scenes of Julia walking towards the camera. Those moments mostly come across as empty posturing and unnecessary padding, tipping the running time past 90 minutes (though only just). If anything, they’re further reminders of the humble nature of the production, disabusing you of the notion that you’re watching anything more than gruesome nonsense.
Further to that point, the “extreme therapy” devolves into cloaked women castrating men for a reason so silly, you won’t believe how po-faced the filmmakers decide to play it. Any argument that this is a serious character study of a woman losing herself to vengeance need only be reminded of the reverse Sleepaway Camp twist waiting in the final reel. Again, not a bad thing, but like the film’s muddied politics on violence, it’s confusingly rendered.
And then there’s Julia herself. Ashley C. Williams is saddled with nerd-drag at the start of the film. Her glasses (nonprescription, we find out) resemble a superhero mask and she’s dressed for a fashionable snowstorm, buried in heavy coats and infinity scarves. It’s all there to be shed, of course. The two most famous rape/revenge movies (I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45) both have an element of She’s All That to them, where the victims go from unwilling sexual punching bags to seductive predators. Here it’s literalized, not just as Julia removes her glasses and starts wearing make-up, but as Sadie narrates it all, making the subtext text.
None of what doesn’t work about Julia (the character or the movie) can be pinned on Williams though. The story being told is one we’ve seen many times and it would take a deft touch to make the proceedings feel like anything other than a foregone conclusion from the first minute to the last. With the exception of the cult silliness, that’s simply not the case. Most of the violent money shots are cut away from in faux deference to the seriousness of it all. And at the sake of belaboring the point, if the film wanted to have a serious conversation about rape and violence, they might have avoided a totally gratuitous lesbian love scene between Julia and Sadie. You can’t have your soft core erotic cake and eat it too.
I’m willing to admit that this may be an “old man yells at cloud” review. I respect the professional look of the film, but it bored me. That may be a case of over saturation on my part. I’ve seen a lot of films in this genre and there’s a numbing effect that sets in after a while. Without a clear or interesting stance on the subject matter or a willingness to go full trash, this one just wasn’t for me.