#13 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.
I really like Terry Gilliam, but he’s got some terrible narrative instincts and he lets them all fly free in Tideland. Gilliam is first and foremost a visual stylist, and his best works all feature that visual flair while also managing to wrangle a strong enough story around them. I think there are ideas in Tideland that could have been brought together into something cohesive, but it ultimately doesn’t work.
I know that this movie has its fans, so after this, my second watch of the film, I searched out some of them, and it feels like they were watching another movie. Instead of the meandering, storyless slog that I saw, they saw an enrapturing journey into…it’s unclear. They seem to take in this movie like I take in a Malick. It’s about the journey of the film, the feel, the uplift of the moment, but Tideland is aesthetically unpleasant at best. That’s an interesting place to intentionally put yourself as an artist. Making something that is visually ugly creates a handicap for your movie that may or may not be necessary. I don’t think the rotten aesthetic kills the film, but it certainly makes it harder to simply watch. I’ll talk more about that in a minute.
So, the events of the film (I really wouldn’t call it a story) follow Jeliza-Rose, a ten year old girl who’s mother dies of a meth overdose and father dies of a heroin overdose in the first thirty minutes of the film. Her father’s body slowly decomposes in a chair in the middle of the living room and Jeliza-Rose has no idea that this is what’s happening. Alone out in the middle of a field, she spends her time talking to four doll heads and playing. She meets a couple of neighbors, a woman, Dell, she calls a ghost and a pirate and the other is a mentally challenged young man Dickens, played by Brendan Fletcher in a performance that definitely goes full retard, as Kirk Lazarus would say.
Each event of the film feels disassociated from the rest for about the first hour and a half. Her meetings with the two neighbors feels inconsequential. She doesn’t have a journey. She has separate things that happen. There’s no core emotional journey for her. Jeliza-Rose never deals with her parents’ death nor does she ever grow up. She’s caught in between her fantasies and reality (a common motif for Gilliam), but it comes to nothing. She’s only shocked out of the fantasy in the end by Dickens blowing up a train. It could be said that Dickens’ inability to cope with reality and descent into fantasy is what shocks Jeliza-Rose from her own fantasy, but I think that’s being overly generous because even at the end, Jeliza-Rose feels like she’s still trapped there.
Now, to the aesthetics. The movie’s ugly. It’s ugly to look at, and it’s ugly to experience. There’s the obvious stuff like Jeff Daniels’ body slowly decomposing and then preserved into a leathery shell that Jeliza-Rose hugs like he’s still alive. There’s the flat color scheme of browns. There’s also the weird romance between Dickens and Jeliza-Rose that pops up. Dickens is in his twenties, and the two end up being cousins. And yet, they develop this romance of light kissing while Jeliza-Rose goes on about how they’re married and has a baby growing inside her. It’s uncomfortable at best, but, to make it even worse, it has little point other than to be just another fantasy that Jeliza-Rose gets lost in. It doesn’t really feed any narrative momentum.
The movie is chopped up from individual ugly pieces that never really come together while splitting its thematic point across several different, undeveloped, ideas. It is every bad narrative instinct Gilliam has wrapped up in one small package.
Netflix Rating: 2/5
Quality Rating: 1/4