People seeking non-mainstream fare certainly can't go wrong with a film about heroin addiction, necrophilia, incest, and pedophilia—especially when headlined by Jeff Bridges, who routinely reels off notable acting performances every time. But given the disastrous debut at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival and extremely limited theatrical release, Terry Gilliam decided to film an unusual disclaimer for Tideland warning viewers that many would "hate this film" and explaining that his dark Jabberwock is really about childhood innocence. Give his film a chance, he pleads. "Children are resilient. When you drop them, they bounce."
Certainly, anyone watching Tideland in its entirety won't forget its disturbing imagery—the same way viewers can't erase Dennis Hopper's crazed character or Isabella Rossellini's stark nakedness from Blue Velvet. But that is likely to consist of a cultish few and broadminded film aficionados, willing to watch the disquieting material unfold over Gilliam's glacially paced tapestry. Set against vast swathes of pastoral wheat fields, most will hit the eject button long before the film reaches its mid point. But there is much to admire in Gilliam's bleak Alice in Wonderland tale. Stylishly similar to Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this more recent film is actually far more straightforward and easier to follow that most of Gilliam's work.
Based on Mitch Cullin's novel of the same name, Tideland follows young Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland) through her lonely journey down the rabbit hole as she attempts to cope with Life through extensive conversations with her disembodied doll's heads. The daughter of junkie rock musician past his prime Noah (Jeff Bridges) and Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), Jeliza Rose follows her distraught father to a prairie farmhouse after her mother dies from an overdose. Here, she helps prepare her father's heroin “vacations” until he takes one too many, soon attracting flies and stinking up the place.
Jeliza Rose survives through a rich fantasy life and eventually "adopts" a bizarre family from the neighborhood—witchlike Dell (Janet McTeer) and her stuttering lobotomized brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who is prone to seizures but conveniently has taxidermy skills. The neighbors assist Jeliza Rose's fantasy by embalming her father's rotting corpse, thankfully transforming his graying flesh tones to more tolerable pickled brown. More trials remain, but the young girl survives the ordeal that finally ends with a literal train wreck redemption.
Like all of Gilliam's films, Tideland isn't meant for everyone. On a literal level, the film contains much that is difficult to watch. But imaginative people who can relate to his visions of solitude and coping with the intolerable will find rewards in the quirky film. While children are generally seen as victims of circumstance, Gilliam demonstrates that these vulnerable little humans really are far stronger than most give them credit for; the film stands as a metaphor testifying for the basic resiliency of the human spirit.