Saturday, February 17, 2007

Wired Review: Terry Gilliam's Tideland

I'm generally down with anything Terry Gilliam does (well, ok, The Brothers Grimm wasn't so good), so I was looking forward to Tideland. But this review from Wired will probably keep me away.
Review: Terry Gilliam's Tideland


The newest Terry Gilliam movie is best described as nightmarish. With no particular point, the end of the film evokes relief and embarrassment, as if you have just finished witnessing Gilliam pass an enormous gallstone kidney stone. One feels the urge to let go his clammy hand, pat him gently and ask him if he feels better.

The film stars young Jodelle Ferland (Silent Hill) as Jeliza-Rose, daughter of an aging, dysfunctional, but still affectionate smack addict, Noah. Jeff Bridges, reprising the Dude with harder drugs, plays Noah with an intense sympathy--the most engaging and intriguing member of the cast. Jeliza's unnamed (and ambiguously fat/pregnant) mother (Jennifer Tilly), spends the eight minutes prior to her heroin overdose alternately deprecating and cuddling Jeliza, and cramming handfuls of chocolate into her smeared, sad mouth. Then she dies in a grotesque splay, and it is all Jeliza can do to keep Noah from setting the horrible woman on fire.

The girl's life consists of playing nursemaid to her junkie parents and maintaining a shrill, running narration by her variously-personified disembodied doll heads. Ferland does all the voice acting for the dolls, which take on greater independence as the film goes on. Each of them possesses uncomfortably differentiated accents, and eventually Jeliza's mouth ceases to move at all when the dolls speak.

Post-overdose, Jeliza and Noah hop a Greyhound and head for the prairie, and Noah's family homestead. Here the beauty of the film is most apparent. Gilliam spends ample time on the yellow and grey expanse, fascinating the viewer with dry-rotted wood, silver sky, and the secrets of the undergrass.

Tideland Eventually Jeliza is left entirely alone and, muzzy and malnourished, the film begins in earnest. A bee-fearing, taxidermist witch (Dell, played by Janet McTeer) and her lobotomized brother (Dickens, Brendan Fletcher) enter stage left, making up the rest of the cast.

The most fascinating aspect of the film is the sickeningly believable attraction of Jeliza to Dickens, who becomes boyfriend and eventually husband in the personally-narrated fantasy world she maintains throughout the film. In Dickens, Jeliza finally finds an aspect of her life she can influence and possess. She takes advantage of the feebleminded young man in a familiar game of seduction, assertion and befuddlement that is instinctually exercised by pre-pubescent girls.

It's not quite make-believe, but treating it as such offers a certain amount of protection to the seductress. If things get too serious, she can always turn away and retort, "I was just kidding." Dickens, having been given a not-unpleasant crash course on this sort of thing by Jeliza's grandmother in the very same house, bashfully reprises his role as "a little sweetie". He maintains his own made-up continuum, the captain of a submarine and arch enemy of a mythical monster shark, and so implicitly accepts Jeliza's fantasies. Jeliza has found a perfect mate: a man old enough to accept and enjoy her feminine advances, but in all other ways, an eternal boy. And the audience squirms.

You cannot call Tideland "bad". There is much of the old genius here, but it is strangely muddled and sad, perhaps from years of disappointment (see "Lost in La Mancha"). I see it as the acid reflux from the hideous disappointment of the Brothers Grimm, a movie so completely useless that I cannot imagine Gilliam escaped unscathed. Disappointment is, perhaps, the driving theme behind Tideland, from Noah's unrealized dream to move to Jutland and become a Norse chieftan, to the almost-friendships of Jeliza-Rose with the resident nutjobs-on-the-prairie. It can be thought of as the inbred, mutant cousin Pan's Labyrinth, with both movies directly challenging the ability of tween girls to muffle themselves in fantasy.

But having gotten Tideland off his chest, I think we can anticipate Gilliam's triumphant return.

I'll wait for his next film (although I will probably rent the DVD of this).

Here's the trailer:

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