Maverick director Terry Gilliam’s frequent run-ins with Hollywood are well documented, with the battle over the release of his masterpiece Brazil being the stuff of legend. But since Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha it began to appear that maybe Gilliam is his own worst enemy and that maybe he needs the ruthless studio system to keep him in check. Admittedly his recent studio film The Brothers Grimm was a highly flawed and forgettable film, although it did not quite deserve the critical savaging it received. However it does not even come near the depths that his independently produced Tideland descends to.
Adapted from the novel by Mitch Gilliam Tideland explores the childlike view of the world from the point-of-view of Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) who is effectively abandoned in rural America after the deaths of her junky parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). As a coping mechanism she creates a fantasy world that she shares with intellectually impaired Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) who lives nearby with his sister Dell (Janet McTeer), another casualty of reality.
Gilliam has explored a childlike view of a cruel and unusual world before directly in Time Bandits and more effectively through the eyes of childlike protagonists in his four major achievements Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and the under appreciated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In these four films he also dealt with issues that are prominent in Tideland such as drug addiction, dereliction and insanity. In such films Gilliam’s trademark extreme camera angles, frantic editing, over-the-top acting and grotesque mise-en-scène created an exhilarating and often fearful world that was balanced by moments of humour and pathos – two elements absent from Tideland. Furthermore, his style is a bad match for Tideland‘s themes of child abandonment, intellectual disability and abnormal child sexual awareness. The result is an unpleasant film that is both dull and deeply unsettling to the point that you want to take a shower after seeing it.
There is nothing wrong with films being confronting and making the audience squirm. When done well it is highly effective in both horror and comedy and it is an excellent technique for challenging the audience’s morality and tolerance in order to raise difficult issues. Unfortunately Tideland moves beyond the realm of believability, resulting in an almost flippant depiction of child neglect that prefers to revel in the grotesque rather than explore the issue with any credibility.
The performances from the actors are very good considering the material they are up against and Gilliam’s mastery of film style is evident, but what he has done with Tideland is a major miscalculation and the final product is little more than a voyeuristic freak-show.