Tilda Swinton doesn’t merely act the title role in French director Erick Zonca’s Julia—she devours it, spits it back up, dances giddily upon it, twirls it in the air. It’s a big, all-consuming performance, and in the hands of a lesser actress and filmmaker, it might have consumed the movie, too. But Julia is nearly as electric as its heroine, a leggy, vodka-guzzling tart in false eyelashes and cheap sequined gowns who tells men she can make their dreams come true, and who can, provided those dreams involve parking-lot sex and sunlight-blasted mornings after. The key to Swinton’s performance (and to the movie) is that she’s playing an actress—not a professional one, but a wily, desperate woman under the influence who adapts herself to what each new situation calls for, sometimes well, sometimes badly, but always with every fiber of her being. Her faces are many, including the eerie black death mask she wears when she agrees to help her unstable Mexican neighbor (the superb Kate del Castillo) kidnap her young son from the clutches of his wealthy grandfather. It’s a crackpot scheme made more so by Julia’s half-cocked attempt to secure herself a bigger share of the ransom money, and by the time the movie winds its way from Los Angeles to Tijuana, one kidnapping gives way to another with no end in sight. Directing his first theatrical feature in the decade since the neo-Bressonian The Dreamlife of Angels, Zonca tips his hat to the entire John Cassavetes oeuvre while crafting a messy, nervy, and frequently exhilarating thriller that operates on instinct rather than plot and features richly pulpy dialogue by Zonca and co-screenwriter Aude Py. Jeered upon its premiere at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival and only now receiving a token U.S. release, Julia demands to be reassessed and reckoned with.