Sometimes after watching a movie, as I watch the credits roll, I think to myself, “Man, I really wish I made that movie.” This is precisely how I felt after watching Terry Gilliam’s Tideland. I also felt a mix of overwhelming sadness for the characters and a longing to relive the past days of childhood innocence where the worst possible thing that could happen to you is getting in trouble with your parents.
Tideland is the strangely gruesome, increasingly surreal adventures of a young girl, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), in the fields surrounding the house her and her father, Noah (Jeff Bridges), are staying in after her mother (Jennifer Tilly) dies. While there, Jeliza befriends a mentally handicapped man, Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) because both enjoy retreating into their imaginary worlds, Jeliza because of her loneliness and Dickens because of his controlling taxidermist older sister, Dell (Janet McTeer).
So what can be so disturbing about this movie? Could it be that both of Jeliza’s parents die of a graphic drug overdose, and that Jeliza continues to snuggle and talk to her dad long after he has died? Is it maybe that Dell is an obsessive taxidermist who definitely has more secrets than she’s willing to even hint at? Those are certainly part of it, but what disturbs me the most is that the victims of all this are a young child and a severely mentally impaired man, who seems to be just as much a child as Jeliza is. It’s always hard to watch bad things happen to children and the handicapped, but when the entire movie is seen through their eyes, everything seems to have an eerie innocence.
Critics and some audiences have panned this movie for being boring and have complained that nothing really happens. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The entire point of this movie is to see tragedy and chaos as a child would. Most of the film has to do with Jeliza and Dickens playing and imagining different scenarios, but there are instances where both of them, even if for just a second, see the world around them and absorb all of the chaos.
Jeliza has a few doll heads that she puts on her fingers and talks to as if they were her best friends. By the midpoint of the movie, Jeliza isn’t even talking for the heads anymore. They are talking on their own. Each doll can be examined as different layers of Jeliza’s developing mind. The first doll head isn’t afraid of anything and can’t really see the danger in certain situations, much like a child. The next two doll heads she plays with are more cautious and fearful of the unknown, which signifies Jeliza’s realization that the world is in fact a scary place. Finally the last doll head claims to be able to see things that others can’t, which can be interpreted as Jeliza’s development of critical thinking and analyzing skills.
In truth, this is a coming of age tale from hell that presents itself as a nightmarish fairytale. There are films like Ratcatcher that are very difficult coming of age movies, but the trauma that Jeliza must suffer from what happens in Tideland began making me wonder what she could possibly be like when she grows older. Certainly, she will never be able to just have a regular life. What really made the film so memorable aren’t necessarily the specific scenes, but that I really care about the characters. They were so well developed and brought to life.
Gilliam’s signature imaginative style is back, along with his strangely grimy set pieces. Every one of Gilliam’s films seem to have lots of dirt and uncomfortable places. Think of the cramped, gray future of Brazil or the trashed, vomit filled hotel rooms in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The cinematography is beautiful with the bright blue sky working with the yellow wheat fields to create an other-worldly locale that seems like it is straight out of the mind of the child.
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t just recommend this movie, I would require it. Of course that would only be if I were to rule the world one day. All of the citizens of the earth would be movie watchers, or writers, or some type of artist. There would be huge set-like structures all throughout the cities that would make the world look grandiose and beautiful. But this is just my imagination getting ahead of me. Probably one of the side effects of Tideland. This is truly a beautiful, tragic, and disturbing movie. Ignore the critics. I don’t know what movie they were watching because based off of the reviews, it wasn’t Tideland. I really love this movie and can not wait to see it again.