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Starring: Jodelle Ferland, Brendan Fletcher, Janet McTeer, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Tilly
A little girl endures the hellish consequences of her family life by imagining happiness and fantasy in the rural prairies of her dead grandmother’s cabin.
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“Hello, I’m Terry Gilliam, and I have a confession to make,” the director says into the camera on a black-and-white introduction. “Many of you are not going to like this film. Many of you, luckily, are going to love it. And then, there are many of you who will not know what to think when the film finishes. But hopefully, you’ll be thinking.”
Not a surprising move from the writer/director, notorious for publicly feuding with studios in order to release his own extended versions and receive final cut on his projects. Feeling the need to explain the story’s premise, he goes on to announce that “Tideland” is a child’s perception of the world, and asks the audience for some adjustments in critical judgment.
“Try to rediscover what it was like to be a child with a sense of wonder and innocence,” he continues. “And don’t forget to laugh.”
When a visionary director like Gilliam gives you a pre-game personal warning like that, you can only wonder what disturbing issues lurk in the plotline. And in ways I never thought capable, they are presented in pure daylight in this movie with somehow innocent conviction.
Based on the book by Mitch Cullin, “Tideland” is essentially a coming-of-age story featuring a little girl who is stripped of her irresponsible parents. Death. Drug addiction. Child abuse. Young Jeliza-Rose is exposed to the darkest shadows that can exist within a household. Her only set of friends is a small collection of Barbie doll heads that she animates with her fingertips. Like Danny in “The Shining”, Jeliza-Rose provides the voices for her pretend friends as she twitches her fingers with convincing characterizations.
When the loud and verbally abusive mother (Jennifer Tilly, who else?) dies from a drug-induced heart attack in the bedroom, her father Noah (a heroin-addled Jeff Bridges, picture The Big Lebowski but without the sense of humor) panics and escapes to his mother’s cabin in the desolate countryside of What Rocks, Texas (even though Gilliam’s production was set in Canada).
It is in these exterior shots where cinematographer Nicola Pecorini achieves the film’s finest glories. Though there are several interior scenes that make excellent use of light and set design, Jeliza-Rose’s playground of grain fields and twisted trees is sensationally captured by Pecorini’s expert camerawork. With visual background art like these landscapes, it is understandable how this little girl can escape the horrors of the real world so she can relinquish in the much more entertaining realm of her imagination.
Like in “Time Bandits”, many of the cameras are set low to the ground and pointed at crooked angles in order to gain a childlike point-of-view. As Noah buries a heroin needle into his arm, the camera slopes lopsided like a child’s confused and tilted head. Noah’s expression turns to a stone-dead gaze that evaporates any sense of life within his body. His skin becomes pale, his stomach grows bloated, and an audible buzz of houseflies begins to pollute the air around his motionless body.
But interestingly, Jeliza-Rose is in total denial of Noah’s apparent overdose. Though she recognized her mother’s death immediately with mild emotion, she fails to process the tragedy of her father with any semblance or responsibility. To her, it’s part of a game. While Noah’s body rots away in a living room rocking chair, she decorates his corpse with wigs and make-up. And it isn’t long before the squirrels start talking to her.
Her imagination becomes even more disturbing as the voices of her make-believe friends sound less like innovative conversationalists and more like signs of deviant schizophrenia. The voices of her doll heads begin making decisions for her and noticing rabbit holes in the ground, evoking the motif of “Alice in Wonderland”. Like Alice, this girl is fumbling through an abyss of immortal depth, the bottom of which may break her sanity. But while the aspect of a child playing gleefully in the company of her decomposing father may rattle the comfort zones of many conservative audience members, it is nothing compared to what follows next.
Jeliza-Rose soon comes into contact with a dark and mysterious woman named Dell (Janet McTeer), who lives in the abandoned prairie field with her mentally challenged brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher). Skilled in the science of taxidermy, Dell preserves Noah’s corpse with disinfectant and formaldehyde, making the little girl’s former father a respectable living room fixture. The likeliness of Jeff Bridge’s dead face with its stitched eyelets and leathered skin is indeed a gruesome and uncomfortable sight. In this way, the movie resembles “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” more than “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
And because she is approaching puberty, the voices inside Jeliza-Rose’s mind start whispering interests regarding amorous feelings and sex. Whether it is because of his mental simplicity reflecting innocence or the fact that he is the only living male figure in her life, Jeliza-Rose chooses Dickens as a likely suitor and becomes a flirtatious girlfriend. This is the part of the story that will make most viewers cringe in their chairs and pinch their arm flesh. More than likely, it is this plot development that caused Terry Gilliam to explain the narrative format in the film’s introduction.
While the director begs the audience to suspend their preconceived notions of child behavior and interaction, this is difficult to do when we are forced with the visual image of a prepubescent child caressing and snuggling a grown man who has a mental handicap. It is an innocent relationship to her, but you are forced to ask if it is a completely harmless affair to the unstable Dickens. The premise is creative and certainly provocative, but also somewhat demented in its graphic depiction of childish passion.
I didn’t hate this movie, Mr. Gilliam, but I can’t say that I loved it either. Like Cullin’s novel, this movie is bold, daring, and independent. Since those qualities reflect a work that is highly controversial, it is safe to say that Mr. Gilliam’s “Tideland” succeeding in making me think. It made me wonder when childhood fantasies cease to be innocent and begin to become signs of madness. It made me speculate about what can happen to unsupervised youth in this violent world of disease, drugs, and death.
Though Gilliam’s ninth solo-directed featured was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize at Spain’s 2005 San Sebastian Festival, the movie was largely neglected by American distributors since it was shelved for almost an entire year after its initial release in Russia in February 2006. When it finally did reach American projectors, “Tideland” only made it to a select handful of theaters and art museums before crossing into the DVD market. In typical tradition for the writer/director, Gilliam openly criticized the US distribution company, ThinkFilm, for mishandling his film’s theatrical release and tampering with the movie’s aspect ratio. Both Gilliam and spokespeople for ThinkFilm have claimed that they are working on the film’s ratio problem so that a theatrical version can be properly presented in DVD format. But if you are like many moviegoers who find the graphic elements of independent cinema distasteful, you will discover that a ratio problem is the least of this movie’s problems.