Monday, August 27, 2007

Academy of the Underrated: Tideland

I’m a big fan of Terry Gilliam, and so it’s to my shame that I missed out on seeing TIDELAND when it was in theaters. Sure, the reviews were not kind, but when dealing with someone like Gilliam it’s best not to listen to the critics. Except now, I mean. Except me. I’m not really a professional critic anyway. Come back! Please. Okay.

TIDELAND manages the rare distinction of being one of Gilliam’s stranger films, to the extent that the DVD contains an introduction in which he briefly explains what we’re about to see, while accepting that many of us will still hate it. Despite grim subject matter and some genuinely ugly sights, the movie, based on a novel by Mitch Cullin, has a serene and innocent quality to it, showing us a child’s ability to adapt to the most unpleasant of situations, and bending concepts of family to their breaking point. Imagine if William Faulkner wrote PAN’S LABYRINTH and you just might have some idea what to expect. Or not.

Jodelle Ferdland plays Jeliza-Rose, a young girl living with her failed rock star father Noah (Jeff Bridges) and mostly bedridden mother (Jennifer Tilly.) Both her parents abuse drugs heavily, and when the mother dies from an overdose, Noah takes Jeliza out to the country, where a relative of his purportedly owns a farmhouse. Whoever owns it, it’s an abandoned dump, and dad does very little to improve its condition before finally collapsing on an easy chair and not getting up again, or moving, or speaking. Jeliza, meanwhile, is lost in her own dream world, playing with imaginary friends represented by doll heads, and hunting down a squirrel who lives in the ceiling. She meets a real friend, a lobotomized retarded epileptic named DIckens (Brendan Fletcher), who lives at a nearby house with his sister Dell, played by Janet McTeer. Jeliza becomes friends with Dickens, who has a rich fantasy life of his own, thinking he’s captain of a submarine in the vast seas of grain and prairie grass, at war with the monster shark that rolls down the train tracks. The three, plus the “sleeping” father, become an odd surrogate family.

There does not, on the face of it, appear to be any kind of overriding central conflict to the picture. It’s a more disjointed, episodic affair, relying more on a general disquiet that comes from the fact that nothing happening on screen is really right for a child. There’s nothing heartwarming about the gothic family Jeliza settles in with, or rather, if there is, it’s dispelled when Dell decides to perform some preservation on Noah and then have him sit at the family table. Even Jeliza’s friendship with Dickens becomes disturbing when she starts treating him as her boyfriend (him not having sufficient intelligence to discourage her)- nothing truly untoward happens, but it always seems like it might. There is a sense that it’s all somehow going to go horribly wrong, and we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Virtually all of this is shown from Jeliza’s point of view. I can think of only a couple of scenes where she is not present, and the dialogue between her and her doll-head friends acts as a running commentary. She, of course, is not hugely concerned about the fact that her father has been sleeping for several days on end or that she’s been living on peanut butter for much of the time- far more pressing is the loss and therefore effective death of her best “friend” Mustique. The evocation of a child’s world, with little differentiation between play and reality, is near-perfect; her dreams are enchanting without being saccharine, she rushes to conclusions, and she argues with her imaginary friends constantly. Ferdland’s performance is astonishing, and carries much of the weight of the film, while her visions are cunningly realized through scattered, well-placed special effects, in moments reminiscent of Gilliam’s more overtly fantastic pictures.

The film cannot help but seem aimless at times, and the relentless focus on Jeliza’s limited experience sometimes prevents us from fully understanding what’s going on ourselves. The ending is particularly inconclusive. But this is all part of what the film is trying to be, and it’s hard to really criticize it on that basis as a result, though it does have the effect of making the end product seem rather slight.

The grade I’m giving this film right now is sort of tentative; though I’m unabashedly positive about it, it’s hard to say what I think beyond that. Gilliam has had even more trouble than usual getting films made the past few years, and reception has been unkind, but TIDELAND shows a filmmaker fully in control of his skills, creating bizarre images woven into a chaotic storyline while very subtly using all this chaos to create a distinct and unified vision. Whatever the Hell it is, it’s finely crafted, and I recommend it to the brave.

From the novel by Mitch Cullin
Screenplay by Tony Grisoni and Terry Gilliam
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Grade: A-

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