2006Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jodelle Ferland, Jeff Bridges, Brendan Fletcher
ideland opens with a stark contrast of scenarios: one, an idyllic, sun-kissed dream; the other, a throbbing drug-fuelled nightmare. And that’s Terry Gilliam, still wresting with light and dark, good and evil in his own visually arresting way. His Southern Gothic is an impressive, morbid tale delivered with surprising clarity and economy.
After her mother dies from a heroin overdose, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) is whisked away to an isolated farmhouse by her rock-star-junkie father. The house and set design is starkly reminiscent of the repugnant, grimy crookedness of Ed Gein and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Jeliza-Rose's attempts to adjust to her new surroundings result in increasingly odd behavior, as she begins to invent various personalities for her doll heads. She also begins a creepy “romance” with Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), an innocent retarded boy, too old for comfort.
The film’s overt reference to Alice in Wonderland is slightly misleading; it plays more like a live action Miyazaki that should be badly translated as Jeliza’s Crazy Heads. From the child’s perspective, Gilliam’s film deals with the breakdown and death of the family and the anchorless nature of its protagonist. There’s something alienating about the intimacy we share with the young girl. She is so reliant upon herself—as we are in our position as the viewer—that we begin to develop an unhealthy concern for her well-being that’s not necessarily “deserved” by her actions as a character.
Much like The Fisher King, the liberation of fantasy and imagination is soured with the terrors of true mental illness. Jeliza’s wonderland is a frightening place that allows us to rethink our instinctive feeling that children are to be protected from trauma. Gilliam shows just how resilient and courageous kids can be and how much value there is in tragedy. It is the adults in the film—either distorted, demented or drug-addled—who need shielding from the harsh light of reality that Jeliza may represent. This is by far Gilliam’s most emotionally resonant work. He seems to have found a sincere balance in the story, which he imbues in the unsettling fabric of the film.
Formally, Gilliam allows the film a rare sense of time and space. Previous efforts like Twelve Monkeys and Brazil choke on themselves, the constriction of the visual storytelling fun, eccentric but often distracting from themes that we should but cannot connect with. Here, we are closely bound to what’s going on, especially the child’s precarious relationship with Dickens and the sheer unpleasantness of her inner-world. All of Gilliam’s tricks and traps are here, but they are put to a purpose other than his own entertainment. The film is all the better for it.
The director describes the source of the film, Mitch Cullins’s novel, as “fucking marvellous,” a pretty fair description of the subject matter and worldview of the film. The narrative, ultimately, seems to be about not being safe, explicitly depicting the home as a dangerous and cruel place. As in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Gilliam’s own Time Bandits, children are urged to find their own way, away from the morally collapsed adult world. Maybe the wide eyes of children, like the giant apertures of a camera lens, are able to accept the reality they are presented with objectively. The narrowed, suspicious eyes of adulthood are far more discerning, missing out, it would seem, on so much more. Gilliam has commented that “things that have stayed with me are the things that have disturbed me.” He certainly shades his latest film with this brave, curious desire for grim adventure.
Tideland is now playing in the UK, and opens in the US in October.