Tideland will go down in history as one of the most stunning mistakes of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s a movie that fits perfectly in the Terry Gilliam oeuvre, except for the fact that it is a dismal, rank bore that so misses the thematic mark that it becomes a complete nightmare. Tideland isn’t just Terry Gilliam’s worst film, it’s one of the worst films being released in theaters this year.
The movie covers very, very well-known Gilliam territory: it’s about a girl who retreats into an inner fantasy life to cope with reality. While some Gilliam films examine whether or not the fantasy is real, Tideland follows the Brazil model, where we know what is real and what is make-believe. However, unlike Brazil, the make-believe world is just as ugly and horrible as the real world, plus the young protagonist seems to be a bona fide psychopath, unable to tell one from the other and unable to react to real human tragedy in any meaningful way.
Jeliza-Rose’s (Jodelle Ferland, the creepy moppet from Silent Hill) life is bad right from the start of the film. Her father (Jeff Bridges) is a washed up rock star junkie and her mother (Jennifer Tilly) is an ex-junkie who eats chocolate by the pound. Jeliza and her dad bond when she cooks his smack and shoots him up; she carefully makes sure he doesn’t start a fire with his cigarette when he nods. When he’s conscious he goes on and on about Jutland, the Northern European peninsula he holds as a magical place. One day, he promises, they’ll go there together.
Then the mother suddenly dies and dad, realized child protective services will take his daughter away, hightails it with Jeliza-Rose to his mother’s old house on the prairie. The place has been abandoned for years, and is a ramshackle disaster. Jeliza promptly accidentally administers her dad’s final fix – he dies in an easy chair, where he slowly rots as she hangs out with him and explores the area around the house, disturbingly unaware of what is going on around her.
There’s something to be said about finding solace in your imagination in such a grim situation; Jeliza-Rose seems to find only denial. This is where the movie lost the usual Gilliam narrative thread – Jeliza never disappears into another world and other worlds don’t intrude on her own; rather she just sits in the nasty world she lives in and pretends her very obviously deceased father is alive and has conversations with disembodied Barbie heads. If Jeliza was developmentally disabled I would be less creeped out by all this, but she’s presented as very bright. Since there’s not even the slightest ambiguity about what is real and what is imaginary, the only explanation is that Jeliza has had a massive mental breakdown and is not dealing with reality anymore on any level. This isn’t magical or wondrous, it’s tragic and a little pathetic.
It’s dangerous, too. Jeliza discovers the neighbors, Dickens and Dell, and gets involved with them despite obvious and glaring signs that these people are beyond fucked up. Dickens is older, and retarded in that twitchy, slurry movie way. Dell is just horrifying – at one point she stuffs Jeff Bridges’ corpse and sets him up at the dinner table. It’s the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Children’s Edition. Jeliza thinks (pretends?) that Dickens is a sub captain, and their relationship gets very creepy very quickly. Terry Gilliam says to watch the movie through a child’s eyes, but a child of what century? What modern child doesn’t know better than to kiss a retarded adult?
Tideland often looks stunning, but in a syphilitic way. The film is grungy and gross, and not in a fantastical, medieval fashion, but more in a diving-into-the-toilet-in-Trainspotting way. When indoors the movie is downright unhygienic looking, which I get is on purpose but doesn’t make it any less overbearingly unpleasant. The scenes outside are sometimes breathtaking, but the film makes no distinction in Jeliza’s head – ie, the indoors does not represent the real world and the outside is not the fantasy land.
Not that there is much fantasy land in this film. I assume the small budget kept Gilliam from really indulging himself. Don’t be fooled by promo material featuring shark-squirrel hybrids – there’s nothing like that in the film. In the fantasy world Dickens is still a retarded creep and Dell is still a hideous woman and dad is still a rotting corpse. I think this may be the film’s biggest flaw – we’re forever outside of Jeliza’s imagination, looking in. The beat up doll heads only get lifelike on rare occasion, but the rest of the time it’s Jeliza talking to her hand, and it’s hard not to think of Danny Torrance at those moments.
Although moments may not be the best way to describe the scenes with the doll heads. They make up much of what Jeliza-Rose does with herself once her dad is dead, and you get the impression that Gilliam finds Jodelle Ferland so magical that he could fill five hours of movie with her just scampering around. Two is enough, thank you very much. Too much, in fact – the movie could stand to be trimmed by almost a half hour, and much of the extraneous material is Jeliza-Rose arguing with the doll heads. This is the first Terry Gilliam film where I felt truly bored for much of it – when I wasn’t feeling creeped out in the wrong way.
The following paragraph contains spoilers for the film’s end.
At the end of Time Bandits, Kevin is left in the smoldering ruins of his home and the charred remains of his parents. It’s a strange ending, but the parents asked for it – they touched the Evil when Kevin warned them not to. At the end of Tideland, Jeliza-Rose stands amid the flaming wreckage of a train – Dickens followed through on his film-long promise to blow it up (he thinks, or pretends to think, that the train is a shark and that the prairie is an ocean). As people stumble about, wounded and dying, Jeliza-Rose is happy that Dickens (who apparently blew up with the train) did what he wanted. The character seems irredeemable; how can she look at the bleeding and weeping people and feel anything but the horror of how her fantasy world has come crashing down on her head? In the final shot Jeliza-Rose’s eyes are filled with lightning bugs/fairies, an image I am sure meant to convey that she retains magic inside her, but to me it seems like the origin of a sociopath. If that had been the point of the movie, this would be a glowing review, but every frame of the movie is obviously intended to be about just the opposite.
Tideland often feels like a perversion of a Terry Gilliam movie. I like movies that make me uncomfortable, and I appreciated that the relationship between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens skeeved me out big time. At least I was feeling something during those scenes. But for most of Tideland I was bored, and when I wasn’t bored I was repulsed – usually by the characters, who range from the creepy to the hateful.
I don’t know where Tideland went wrong. If it was a half hour shorter it would be an interesting (but total) failure. At its current length it’s a disaster.