Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Horrors Of Being A Child Adult Surrounded By Adult Children: Terry Gilliam's Intriguing Tideland

The Good: Dark, Visually spectacular, Acting, DVD bonus features
The Bad: Repetitive quality, Lack of plot
The Basics: Terry Gilliam's visually impressive psychological horror takes the viewer into a young girl's struggle to endure with her imagination as she encounters repetitive traumas in her daily life.

Sitting down preparing to watch Tideland for the first time, I realized Tideland is a remarkably polarizing film. When I sat to write my review, the reviews I read were at the extreme, love-it or hate-it, nothing in between. Having once declared - and continued to support the idea - that Terry Gilliam had created the best film ever with Brazil, I knew that Tideland's director could well have created another perfect film. My fear was that he might have created an absolute lemon (which I've yet to see from Gilliam).

As it stands, Tideland is not a perfect film, nor is it a lemon and on DVD is becomes a truly wonderful film to watch and study, but one that is hard to recommend for a permanent collection. The result is a film that has truly spectacular aspects, but falls within the bounds of the expected greatness of the creator, much like Mystic River did with stacking its deck on the casting. Overshadowed by the similarly themed Pan's Labyrinth, Tideland remains a work worthy of attention, but neglected it.

In this fashion, the story of the film Tideland illustrates the themes within the movie.

Jeliza-Rose is a girl who has developed an emotionally self-sufficient personality due to her neglect by her drug-addicted father and emotional abuse by her chain-smoking mother. Kept company by the heads of her dolls, Jeliza-Rose has a pretty healthy knack for talking to herself and overcoming the fears and insecurities of being a child by play-acting most of the time. When her mother dies of a drug overdose, her father uproots her and the two flee to an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of wheat country.

There, Jeliza-Rose begins to delight in being a kid in the tall grass, the wreckage of a school bus, the clothes left behind by her absent grandmother (whose house it is), and her own imaginary world that extends from all that she encounters. It is not long before her father shoots up one too many times and Jeliza-Rose is left at the mercy of her imagination and two disturbing and damaged neighbors, the cyclops wraith-like Dell and her mentally-impaired brother Dixon. Jeliza-Rose essentially joins their weird family and while hunger and loneliness begin to overtake her, her imagination begins to overcome her sense of reality.

Tideland is not an adult fairy tale like The City Of Lost Children (reviewed here!) or Pan's Labyrinth, it is a psychological study of scarred adults and the survival instincts of children. Introduced by Terry Gilliam, the film blurs the borders between reality and fantasy in a way that will seem very familiar to fans of Gilliam's works. Indeed, movies where characters encounter the real and the unreal indiscriminately have become somewhat commonplace in mainstream cinema, which is not to say that they are unwelcome. Far from it; the ones that do it best make for enduring entertainment or cinema that reveals deeper truths about the perceptions we have about life and the world we live in.

Tideland is not to be written off as entertainment, but it hardly expands the perceptions we have about the emotional endurance of children or the dangers of them modeling after those who are unable to take care of themselves. As Gilliam notes in his introduction; children are resilient and they see the world differently than we do. What Tideland does that almost no other cinematic outing has ever attempted is it fearlessly explores exactly what that means and what the limits of it might be. In other words, this is not a film that treads lightly into the idea of childish resiliency, it throws protagonist Jeliza-Rose into the deep end of the ocean and when she begins to swim, she's given leg weights. That's an endurance test!

As a result, Jeliza-Rose begins to be more effected by the things she relies on. Mustique, her favorite doll head, becomes her reliable best friend and the companion she most relies upon to combat fear. And living in the middle of nowhere in a creepy house with the embalmed skin of your dead father is certainly a place rich in potential for fear! As a result of her dependence upon what is reliable, Jeliza-Rose exhibits more emotion when Mustique falls down a rabbit hole than when her father expires. In the absence of her crutch against fear, Jeliza-Rose becomes more dependent upon her human companions, Dell and Dixon.

Dell is a necrophilic drifter whose mood swings from the somber and religious to the sex-crazed and shrieking. She is skilled enough to be able to embalm a body, responsible enough to get food delivered and perceptive enough to know that Jeliza-Rose needs to be looked after like her brother Dixon, but the limits of her competence are quickly reached. As Jeliza-Rose and Dixon grow closer together, Dell becomes flightier and looks toward keeping Dixon to herself and, conversely, wandering aimlessly the fields around the two houses with little perception of where she is and of what is going on around her. Jeliza-Rose likens her to a ghost and in many ways that perception illustrates how on the ball the girl is. Unfortunately for her, when Dell chooses to haunt - whenever there are no bees around - Jeliza-Rose usually ends up hurt or confused.

But with Dixon, she finds a playmate operating at about her level. Having had brain surgery to treat his epilepsy, Dixon is an adult who functions like a child. "Swimming" through the sea of tall grass around the two houses, he understands the train that comes through as a shark, giant and powerful. He is somewhat indifferent to his protective sister and he does not truly understand love or sex, which get him and Jeliza-Rose into no small amount of trouble with Dell.

Jeliza-Rose is the very model of resiliency that she is intended to be. Schooled on Alice In Wonderland, she endures the daily horrors that surround her with whatever grace she possesses, which is largely living without a comprehension of what she is seeing - when Dell fellates the delivery man, she is convinced the woman is a vampire sucking his blood - or extending the mundane into the extraordinary.

When Mustique falls down the rabbit hole, Jeliza-Rose is able to envision the head falling to the center of the Earth. It is in that way that Tideland is actually incredibly perceptive and articulate at expressing its themes and ideas. Jeliza-Rose does not fully understand death - she play-acts dying frequently - which is evident by her failure to recognize her father's transition into a corpse (though he was pretty immobile before that, so it's hard to blame the girl!). She is not able to understand the philosophic distances between life and death, but she understands spatial relationships. So, of course, she reacts more hurt and surprised and traumatized when her doll head falls what she believes to be an infinite distance (anything out of reach is a lightyear away in the perceptions of a child) into the earth!

In order to achieve the thematic goals of Tideland and truly illustrate the resiliency of a child and the nature and power of childish imagination, Tideland has to utilize extraordinary visuals. The "extraordinary" takes the form of visual effects and simple exposure. Terry Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni, who adapted Mitch Cullin's novel, are responsible for putting on screen some of the most bleak and disturbing images possible. They include the gored out flesh-bodies of people like Jeliza-Rose's father and showing Dell engaged in necrophilia. But even the more mundane disturbances in reality, like young Jeliza-Rose preparing her parents' heroin are shocking for the audacity of the reality they create. Gilliam is daring enough to show on screen what many live in denial of; drug-addicted parents usually are enabled and their children often become tools to their fix! Tideland fearlessly shows that with a straightforward use of scenes that include the mundane task of the girl cooking her dad's drugs.

Gilliam, then, needs to make the rest of the world that much more extraordinary and he does that through visual effects. Not degenerating to computer generated characters or much in the way of lavish surreal sequences, Gilliam uses light and color as one of the most profound visual effects possible. Tideland is a film rich in color. Fans of Gilliam's work may not be prepared for it! Gone are the grays that muted the mood of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, Tideland explodes with color from almost its first frames. Out in the country, Jeliza-Rose lives in a vivid world filled with sun-drenched yellows and earthy warm browns. After opening in blackness, Tideland becomes a visually rich, colorful world that always seems slightly unreal. As a result, the viewer is drawn into the same sense of imagination that Jeliza-Rose has. Everything is just a little too bright and with a world so overexposed it seems natural to make up one's own mysteries.

But Tideland does pretty much just that. After Jeliza-Rose is relocated to the country and meets Dell and Dixon, the movie is in many ways over. Gilliam provides the viewer with further examples of the surreal and extraordinary, but the net effect is what we're introduced to at the beginning; the girl imagines her way through her obstacles. She never becomes so confined or trapped in any physical sense in the real world - save by hunger - that she cannot make it comprehensible using her imagination.

And it is delightful to watch the moments where Jeliza-Rose screams in delight inside the wrecked bus while the nearby train rattles it. Jodelle Ferland plays the scene perfectly and with clarity with her disturbing scream, but her ecstatic smile, so the viewer knows without a doubt that she has childish glee overcoming her.

But we get it. If the point of Tideland is to show what we rationally know but almost never see on screen, the argument the movie more effectively makes is that we don't truly need to. What seems like it might be an escalation of bizarre incidents and encounters between Jeliza-Rose and the crazy necrophiliac and her loping, uninhibited dependent brother begins to quickly feel like simple repetition instead. Jeliza-Rose goes off with Dixon and is yelled at by Dell who abruptly appears. Jeliza-Rose goes off with Dixon and is yelled at by Dell who abruptly appears. Jeliza-Rose goes off with Dixon and is yelled at by Dell who abruptly appears. Jeliza-Rose goes off with Dixon and is yelled at by Dell who abruptly appears. She essentially encounters the same obstacles over and over again and reacts to them in a way that is more or less the same.

At least the film looks great while she does it!

Tideland's protagonist is certainly a likable one and it is hard not to watch the film and feel some empathy for her. The movie is, in some ways, like watching two hours of Gollum fighting with Smeagol; what might for a moment seem amusing, might entertain a little, but the longer it goes on the more disturbed by the reality of it we become. When Jeliza-Rose's dolls begin speaking to her without her moving her lips, the film has reached that point where it is saturated with an unsettling quality. Yet still, Jeliza-Rose endures.

What keeps us watching is the acting. Opening with a pretty stellar performance by Jeff Bridges that is hard to acknowledge as anything other than derivative of his role from The Big Lebowski, Terry Gilliam yet again illustrates that genius may be seeing the potentials in performers that has gone untapped.

Brendan Fletcher, who I had never seen in anything else, is a virtual contortionist in his physical performance of Dixon. He completely characterizes Dixon's mood using his posture, going from a rigid upright-looking citizen with a head cocked awkwardly to one side at an extreme angle to a misdressed hunched over free spirit who laughs with childlike glee along with his young costar. Fletcher's acting challenge is to recreate the sense of whimsy and intellectual freedom that comes natural to a young person like Jodelle Ferland (his costar). Fletcher delivers admirably!

Janet McTeer was unrecognizable to me and that's saying something impressive about the quality of her performance. McTeer was in Songcatcher and the part was memorable, distinctive and had her as remarkably formal. In Tideland, McTeer is wacky without being funny, off-center without being overly villainous and . . . well, primal. It is such a departure from roles I have seen her in previously, yet she sells the reality of it so well with her delivery of the dialogue that it is hard not to acknowledge her talent.

But it's hard to acknowledge the talent of newcomer Jodelle Ferland, the top-billed actress in Tideland, who plays the young Jeliza-Rose. Ferland is a little girl playing a little girl. She brings all the trappings of her youth to bear in playing someone who presumably possesses all he abilities and imagination of a young actress. In other words, Ferland is employed as an actress where she is required to portray a reality that comes from imagination. Jeliza-Rose is a character who lives in a reality that inspires her to imagine she is someone other than she is, be it more confident, a princess or simply in another place. As a result, it's very hard to get a bead on how good an actress Jodelle Ferland actually is.

What I will acknowledge without any hesitation is that Ferland is completely convincing as Jeliza-Rose. She makes it through all of her lines in a way that they are perfectly delivered and we have no doubt at all that we are watching Jeliza-Rose every moment Ferland is on the screen. That's exceptional acting in my book, which at best sets the bar high for Ferland's next project.

On DVD, Tideland is awash in bonus features that explore the reality of the film and Jeliza-Rose's situation. After schlepping through some of the longest pre-menu previews I've ever encountered on a DVD, Disc one offers the film, the Terry Gilliam introduction (which automatically begins when one plays the film) and a full-length commentary. Gilliam and co-writer Grisoni discuss finding the book Tideland, adapting it to screen, casting and challenges they met with getting it released throughout the film in a way that is very informative and documents well their inspiration and struggles. The second disc is packed with deleted scenes (I find myself wondering, as always, why Gilliam did not restore them to the film!), featurettes on the making of Tideland and a documentary on Terry Gilliam as well as trailers and interviews with Gilliam and others. For those who find Tideland compelling, there is a richness to the DVD bonus features that explore the process and concept behind it. For those who found the film disturbing, the bonus features - which, to be fair would be very hard to sit through if one did not enjoy the primary feature - try to explain and lessen the horror of the movie.

But ultimately, Tideland is intended to be a film about people living through disturbing situations and surviving with their innate resiliency, something most people lose as they transition into adulthood. Fortunately, Gilliam did not lose that quality - as evidenced by him continuing to make imaginative and thought-provoking films. But then, we expect as much from Gilliam and as such, it's hard in some ways not to underwhelm some when the bar is set so high.

For other films by Terry Gilliam, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
12 Monkeys


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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