Look up the word ‘Gilliamesque’ in the dictionary, and you’re likely to find the following descriptions of Terry Gilliam’s wild films. A strong sense of dark humour and visual comedy? Check. Dystopian futures? Double check. Striking fantasy sequences? Triple check. All of these traits are present in Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and The Zero Theorem. However, the Gilliam film that subverts the audience’s expectations for these characteristics has to be, without a shadow of a doubt, 2005’s Tideland. The film examines childhood imagination and how a child can survive a morbid situation after a morbid situation through his or her creative willpower. Like nearly all of late Gilliam works, Tideland got a strong mixed reception, perhaps the harshest of all his later career films (31% on Rotten Tomatoes!). I recommend that you drop the cynical critiques formed in adulthood (and ignore those cynics) before you tackle Tideland – I think it’s Gilliam’s misunderstood masterpiece.
Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is an unwanted nine-year-old girl who desires to remove herself from her ugly Texas life. Her parents are junkies, played by an unrecognisable Jennifer Tilly and a Jeff Bridges as Rockstar-inspired (Noah), so it’s Jeliza-Rose’s job to feed her parents heroin before their bodies slowly whittle away to nothing. How Jeliza-Rose separates herself from this miserableness is through her powerful imagination; she has a collection of Barbie doll heads which all behave as her friends in this dire time of need. However, everything comes crashing down on her and her father after the mother chokes to death in her bed. Her father and Jeliza flee to another remote part of Texas to Noah’s mother’s dilapidated farmhouse. In this move, Jeliza sinks deeper and deeper into her make-believe world as her real world becomes increasingly gloom-ridden.
Terry Gilliam has never been a director to please Hollywood executives; he only makes the films that he wants to make. Tideland proves how divisive this independence can really be, with his later career seeing him accused of being self-indulgent. I’ll say it now because the sooner I get this comment out of the way, the better. You are either going to love Tideland or hate it. Its detractors say Tideland is an excruciating exercise in excess, billing it as a bore that runs for too long (the film is 2 hours long). For the fans, Tideland is an honest depiction the blurs the line between quaint fantasy and cruel reality; an Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho concoction if you will. I am in the latter camp – for me, Tideland is a fearless portrait of wicked unseen problems with addiction as shown through the eyes of a child.
Jeliza-Rose is an annoying kid; she softly imagines herself as the doll heads found on her fingertips. Nonetheless, her incessant yapping never gets in the way of anyone else, and when it does, Gilliam and Tony Grisoni design the dialogue to play along with the black-hearted characters; no matter if it’s Noah, the mentally-impaired Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), or his half-blind sister, Dell (Janet McTeer). It’s a tactic Gilliam and Grisoni use to keep Jeliza from feeling lonely and afraid of the outside world around her; at the most extreme case in the film, the Barbie dolls guide her and Dickens to slay the “Monster Shark” that is roaming the Texas countryside. Thanks to a darkly comical snicker on Gilliam’s part, the so-called “Monster Shark” is a passenger train that’s doing its daily and nightly rounds. Jeliza-Rose’s development as a character plunges deeper and deeper into her psyche until the confines of reality shatter her fantasy realm by the time Tideland’s ending rolls around.
How Terry won me over, in the end, is indebted to a video interview with him on the extras package for this new Arrow Video Blu-Ray re-release. Gilliam declares that he made Tideland as a wake-up call to the mass media depicting children as victims of neglect, abuse, paedophilia, and all these horrible situations that children find themselves in. In Jeliza’s defence, children survive in these heart-breaking conditions through their innate and inventive curiosity. Nevertheless, Gilliam isn’t your ideal optimist; Tideland also exists as a warning about the dangers of staying in one’s imagination for too long. In spite of that, I wouldn’t recommend it as your first ever exploration into the director’s beautifully weird world, this is one for the completists. Using wide-angled and off-kilter cinematography that revels in its creative yet broken-down world, and manic performances that are impressively over-the-top in typical Gilliam fashion – Tideland reignites the innocence of childhood.