Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Tideland” is an aggressively unpleasant film. It purports to be about how the power of a child’s imagination can be used to escape the horrors of their situation, but director Terry Gilliam, that master of carnival chaos and visually creative squalor, has gone way too far in making poor Jeliza-Roze’s (Jodelle Ferland) as horrific as possible. And that little 11-year-old Jeliza-Rose seems not only unfazed by much of the horrors, but seems to be genuinely enjoying the thrill of it, only makes the film tip further into madness. It is chaotic, filthy, and really really discomfiting.
Jeliza-Rose just witnessed her fat, bedridden mother (Jennifer Tilly) choke to death. She and her heroin-addicted hippie father (Jeff Bridges, extending his The Dude character from “The Big Lebowski” to unnatural extremes) steal her chocolate, and flee on a train to a cabin in the country. The cabin is overgrown, had no water or electricity… in fact it seems to exist in a weird apocalyptic netherworld. When dad sinks into a days-long heroin trip, Jeliza-Rose begins spending her time talking to a series of plastic doll heads, and playing games in the fields. She soon meets a woman she believes to be a witch (Janet McTeer), but who is, in fact, the local crone-ish hussy who (squirm) seduces all the undesirable men in the area. She also meets Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) a pyromaniac retard who (squirm squirm) puts the moves on the 11-year-old girl. Jeliza-Rose (squirm squirm squirm) is only too happy at the advances, and when it comes time for kissin’ and lovin’… (squirm to the fourth).
The four main characters end up forming a twisted family of sorts, which is less comforting than is sounds, and more, well, squirmy. There’s also featured in “Tideland” a new use for taxidermy that is not often seen outside “Tales from the Crpyt.”
“Tideland” wants to show, I think, that even people who are cruel, retarded, drug-addicted, and insane can still find their niche, and can still find happiness in a family situation. It plays more like a prequel to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in which we see the killers at home doing domestic things and falling in love, long before the poor victims wandered into the movie. Even if that sound like your cup of tea, let me assure you: It’s a lot ickier than it sounds.
Gilliam is a talented director, and has always had an eye for the repressed escaping their squalor (“Brazil,” “12 Monkeys”). He’s also had an eye for making the squalor beautiful (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “The Fisher King”). To be sure “Tideland” is endlessly creative visually, and the clutter and dirt is all rendered in loving detail. But why use such artistry to serve such reprehensible material? Of all the films of his not to encounter and production problems, why did this one have to make it through unscathed? I hope his next effort reaches higher. It makes me all the more sorry that his Don Quixote never made it off the ground.
You know what film took the idea of a child using their imagination to escape the horrors around her, and got it right? “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Now that’s a good film. Also “Léolo.” That’s a great one. It’s just as disturbing, but manages to be beautiful and inspiring. “Tideland” is just ugly and unpleasant.