PLOT: After being raped and nearly killed, nurse Julia (Ashley C. Williams) falls under the influence of a mysterious doctor who prescribes violence and murder as a form of therapy.
REVIEW: There have been a whole lot of rape/revenge movies made over the years, so when you put one on you have a good idea of what you're going to be getting. A lot of them deal with a timid person who finds a primal strength within themselves after suffering trauma at the hands of a group of scumbags, allowing them to turn the tables on their attackers.
The latest entry in this thriller sub-genre is JULIA, the feature debut of writer/director Matthew A. Brown, and while Brown's film has all the usual tropes, the filmmaker also throws in some twists and turns along the way that make his film stand out from the pack. These unique elements cast a shadow of moral ambiguity over the film, denying the viewer a simple, cathartic experience of seeing bloody vengeance wreaked upon the deserving. It's more complicated, and less fulfilling, than that.
The film stars THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE's Ashley C. Williams in the eponymous role of Julia, a meek young woman we're introduced to as she arrives at the apartment of a med student who has asked her out on a date after meeting her at the plastic surgery clinic where she works as a nurse. They never actually go on that date. He drugs her drink with a substance that leaves her immobile and unable to speak but conscious as he and three friends beat and rape her. When the attack is over, the guys dump her at a waterfront, hoping the tide will take her out to sea and drown her.
Instead, Julia survives, keeping the attack secret. While trying to recover, she learns of an underground therapy program run by the mysterious Dr. Sgundud, who's played by Jack Noseworthy, an actor I remember from films like EVENT HORIZON and IDLE HANDS but haven't seen in anything for years. It takes a while to see him here, as Brown tends to keep him off screen or out of focus. Sgundud's approach to helping women find strength after being victimized is very unorthodox: he recommends random acts of violence be carried out on men that the women he's treating lure into their clutches. Sometimes a simple beatdown in a club bathroom will suffice, other times the girls go further. We're talking castrations and murders.
With fellow program member Sadie (an impressive Tahyna Tozzi) as her mentor, Julia does as Sgundud suggests. And this is where the film, and Julia, started to lose me. Sgundud operates with strict rules that forbid the girls from getting revenge directly on their attackers. Their enemies are a certain type of man in general. Destroying them is their way to power. If they seek revenge, they are keeping themselves in a victim mindset, and there are harsh punishments for that. So, sure, a revenge film can sometimes still be satisfying even if the perpetrators of the inciting incident aren't brought to justice. After all, Paul Kersey never got the guys who attacked his wife and daughter in the original DEATH WISH, he was just striking out at any criminal he came across. But these aren't criminals Julia and her cohorts are killing, they're just random dudes, and when the lead is killing the undeserving and then making out with their lover while covered in the blood of the innocent, they're no longer someone I can root for, and I start wondering why I should continue watching them.
One reason to continue watching JULIA regardless is the subtle, captivating performance delivered by Williams. Even as I was repelled by the character, I was drawn in by the way Williams was bringing her to life. Another reason to watch is the often gorgeous cinematography by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson. I didn't always like what I was watching, but Björgúlfsson did an incredible job making sure it was pretty to look at.
Thankfully for my sensibilities, Julia doesn't fully buy into Sgundud's ideas. She dreams of revenge, and she's willing to risk punishment to get it.
With JULIA, Matthew A. Brown has not made a movie that's easy to watch or enjoy. Julia is not a heroine, and this is no rousing "day of the woman". It's a rough, confrontational film populated by unlikeable characters doing terrible things. Setting aside expectations and the hope of getting to care for the main character, accepting JULIA as its own unique beast, I find that is a well crafted film and a solid debut for Brown. There is promise here that he may go on to bigger and better things, and the same can be said for his cast and cinematographer.
I don't think JULIA is going to join the ranks of the rape/revenge classics, it doesn't give the viewer what they want well enough for that, but it is worth spending a disturbing evening with.