When you mention Terry Gilliam to movie fans, chances are he will be known for something by them. In particular, he might be best known for being the American member of Monty Python, as well as being, more or less, the glue that held them together during the movie trilogy that was produced between 1975 and 1983. But Terry Gilliam has his own legacy, beyond Monty Python. In particular, when it comes to his fantasy films. The Fisher King, Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas; If they weren’t box office successes, they were cult classics. Which brings me to a film that Gilliam made in 2005, which was the 1 year when he released 2 movies within a few months of each other (rather than every 3-7 years). One made a $17,000,000 profit at the Box Office, which was The Brothers Grimm. The other spent $12 million and only made back about half a million. An absolute flop. Today, we’re talking about the flop, and whether it deserved all of the hate. This is Tideland.
Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin of the same name, our story revolves around a young girl named Jeliza-Rose (played by Jodelle Ferland) who has quite a unique outlook on the world around her. An outlook of pure innocence and blissful ignorance. Born and “raised” by 2 heroin addicted parents; washed-up rock star Noah (played by Jeff Bridges via a page out of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski), and “Queen Gunhida” (played by Jennifer Tilly), Jeliza-Rose has absolutely no idea what “normal” is. Her role in the home is to prepare the heroin, while her parents for the most part neglect or ignore her. But rather than live in fear in this terrible world, she instead lives in fantasy. Her favourite book is Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland; which she incorporates into her own life, adding a light-hearted adventure where there is genuine trouble and concern. A short while after the movie begins, Queen Gunhida has an overdose, leading to Noah taking Jeliza-Rose on an adventure to Grandma’s house, where they would be safe (from both the cops and social services). They arrive to find the house uninhabited and vandalised. But this doesn’t stop the adventure for Jeliza-Rose. Then, her father dies, and as she has no true concept of death (He’s on vacation, as he would say, when he has taken heroin), the real story begins as she goes on an expedition with her friends (who are all doll heads she puts on her fingers) and have run-ins with ghosts, monsters, sea captains, sharks and evil squirrels. All of which are expanded and exaggerated interpretations of an otherwise alien world that would rival the anything inspired by Ed Gein.
Now to break down the fantasy and get to the reality:
Visually, the film is very impressive, but also interesting in the sense that about 95% of it is set in the real world with the occasional fantasy scene thrown in. It is also visually repulsive, as the symbolism in Jeliza-Rose’s head is quite horrible in reality (such as how she sees a ghost leeching someone’s life force and sucking it out, when it reality it’s the kooky neighbour banging the delivery boy). In terms of presentation, the colours are well chosen with even the dullest, grittiest looking scenes having plenty to attract the eye’s attention.
The acting is for the most part very good, and Jodelle Ferland’s portrayal of Jeliza-Rose is very colourful, multilayered and fascinating. In a world where most child actors can be a bit dull and lifeless (kids in horror movies outside of Stephen King’s It and The Visit, am I right?!), this is a very refreshing performance. Jeff Bridges basically plays an alternate version of The Dude – 1 who is a drug addicted, washed out rock star and is fascinated by Denmark and scandinavian burials. The roles of the neighbours Dell and Dickens (Janet McVeer and Brendan Fletcher) were also fantastic, with both actors portraying what are practically extras at the Madhouse in another Gilliam film known as 12 Monkeys. If Brad Pitt’s character Jeffery Goines was among them, it would turn the madness up to 11.
The characters stand out in a way, because in some fashion, everybody in this film is mentally ill or delusional or simply mad. Nobody is boring. That’s all you need to know.
The story is not to everybody’s taste, but the reason for this is because what you hear and what you see can be completely different stories. On a visual storytelling level you have a young and neglected girl who is surrounded by dangerous people who would or could burst the bubble that she has incased herself in. But on an audio storytelling level, you have this great adventure, and as you listen and watch, you need to use your imagination. You need to envision the adventure, rather than see the harsh reality. It is the mentality of sticks becoming swords, tree houses being secret lairs and whistling of windows being the sound of ghosts. It is a story of a child playing when many would be panicking and afraid. At the same time, I see this film as having an interesting message about life… that despite how things look, about 90% of your life is in your head. How you perceive the world around you is what creates it for you. Now, if you’re in grave danger, obviously, try to survive. But much of this film is more a matter on adding colour to dullness or adventure and intrigue in moments of great trial. I am even reminded of how Roberto Benigni’s character in Life Is Beautiful got his son through the holocaust by turning it into a game. The encouragement of positivity and hope and a hint of escapism when everyone else has lost hope.
The music is beautiful, mysterious, fantastical, dark and child-like. Never boring, always wandering but meaningful and structured. At times reminding me of why I love the use of the accordion in Fantasy films.
The cinematography is as you would expect from a Terry Gilliam movie; surreal but structured and beautiful. With many scenes that could be framed and put on a wall.
Would I recommend Tideland? Personally I would, but not everybody would agree with me. It needs to be watched a certain way, and sometimes you might even need to be in the mood for it. In my opinion, if you watch Terry Gilliam’s introduction where he talks about the film (and even says that some of us will hate it and some of us will love it) it will provide a cushion and perhaps lead to a better understanding while viewing it.