Julia, an entry in the much maligned rape-revenge horror subgenre, sees the eponymous nurse (Ashley C. Williams) seeking out a therapist who promises not only psychological healing but physical retribution, partnering her with the hardened and experienced Sadie (Tahyna Tozzi) to take out her attackers. Sadie teaches her to seduce and destroy men, but with one rule – that she doesn’t make it personal. On paper, it’s more of the same, another I Spit on Your Grave. But while there’s plenty of shock value, the most interesting parts of Julia are the long silent stretches where we live with the character, seeing her journey unfold slowly and told entirely visually. Writer-director Matthew A. Brown, as much as he’s taking his cues from exploitation cinema, giallo, and the work of Sion Sono, is subscribing to a bizarre version of a long-take realism and even finds some inspiration from experimental, abstract cinema.
It’s stunningly shot by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, full of saturated neon colours and moody dirty yellows and greens. It’s more style than anything else, padding out an admittedly thin plot with plenty of slow motion sequences and flash-forwards and -backs. Sometimes style is enough. Although it starts out almost downright tasteful it doesn’t skimp on the gore and sex either, often combining them in ways uncomfortable enough to make you squirm in your seat. It’s not as gratuitous as it could be, but the sprays of blood we do see and the sounds we do hear make it more visceral in our imagination than any practical effect could.
The lack of story does become very apparent in the third act, when the film goes completely off the rails. Key to this is the psychiatrist character (Jack Noseworthy) who has a reveal that is so bizarre and nonsensical it destroys in a second any suspension of disbelief for this crazy world. Worse, it has no impact on the story or characters, it’s just a distraction added for the sake of a crazy twist and nothing more. It also brings into question the whole operation, with its carefully structured mix of therapy and revenge. Wouldn’t someone notice that the attackers of his patients all turn up dead, horribly murdered? Wouldn’t it have been better, from a story point of view, to have Sadie be independent, offering her help to Julia? Then as Sadie falls for her (yes, that happens), she realises she’s let Julia become sloppy, Julia has started killing on her own, and has to stop her to save them both.
There are also the usual pitfalls – it may be about women murdering rapists but to do so they have to seduce them with sexy outfits and sex, in a way that conveniently also serves as a male fantasy for the audience. There are undertones of a commentary on gender, sexual identity, make-up, male and female sexual aggression, but then there are also the two female leads having sex in a shower. It’s somewhat of an unfair comparison, but American Mary, a superior take on similar material, was directed by two women (the Soska Sisters) who are perhaps more aware of the limits of the genre and how to subvert them.