Terry Gilliam has always made astoundingly weird movies, from his little Monty Python cartoons to the classic "Brazil." Nobody knows how to combine childlike wonder with creepy darkness.
So it doesn't exactly startle that he's tackled Mitch Cullin's southern gothic novel, and turned it into an eerie sort of "Brazil-Meets-Alice-In-Wonderland." It lacks much of a cohesive plot, but Gilliam can still make a creepy, exquisite storyline that takes place half in the weirdness of this world, half in a little girl's head.
When her crazed mother ODs and dies, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) and her washed-up dad Noah (Jeff Bridges) move to a decrepit Texas farm. But like most junkies, Noah soon dies as well. Jeliza-Rose seems to go into denial, letting her father's body sit in the house as she explores the rippling grass -- like a sea -- around her house, spinning a series of dreamlike fantasies.
She's accompanied by four doll's heads and a variety of fantastical visions, all to help her cope with her loneliness. But then she befriends the child-man Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and his eccentric sister Dell (Janet McTeer). A darker side starts to creep into Jeliza-Rose's world, as Dickens' vendetta against the Monster Shark leads to disaster.
Terry Gilliam has basically made a career out of being weird, and all the movies he's made reflect that. Sometimes his movies are absolutely brilliant ("Brazil"), and sometimes it's just average ("Brothers Grimm"). It's too soon to judge how "Tideland" will be remembered, but I'm thinking that it will be remembered as one of Gilliam's most moving films.
The plot is pretty simple -- incomprehensible to those expecting a "normal" story -- but it sort of drifts off after Noah's demise. It would have been nice to have a bit more complexity there. But Gilliam does keep it afloat by relying mostly on Jeliza-Rose's imagination to keep the story going, sort of like Alice in Wonderland did.
Gilliam has always been great at surreal stuff, and he has all sorts here -- talking squirrels, the talking doll-heads, a house sinking into the earth, and a guy who prowls around the prairie in SCUBA gear. Even the landscape -- golden seas of grass, gnarled trees -- has a weird, unearthly look.
But for all this whimsy, Gilliam keeps his eye on the dark side of things -- Jeliza-Rose is trying to escape the horrors of her reality, through a sort of controlled madness. Even when she returns to reality, she won't be able to escape the death and sorrow -- so maybe a little madness is necessary to keep sane.
Jodelle Ferland deserves a special shout-out, especially since she's the center of the entire movie. Her Jeliza-Rose is a wonderful kid -- precocious, intelligent, creative and surprisingly innocent considering that we see her prepping heroin for her dad. But she's still a child, with all of a child's vulnerabilities and fears, and Ferland makes us feel that as well.
"Tideland" is not a fun movie -- it's disturbing, macabre, and very funny, with some charmingly whimsical visuals. Hate it, love it, but nobody will be on the fence about it.