Sunday, September 11, 2005

TIFF 2005: "TIDELAND" (Review)

(Special Presentations) Canada/United Kingdom, 121 minutes
Written by: Tony Grisoni, Terry Gilliam, based on the novel by Mitch Cullin
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jodell Ferdland, Jeff Bridges, Jennifer Tilly, Janet McTeer, Brendan Fletcher

Terry Gilliam's second film in under a month (following August's release of the long-delayed "The Brothers Grimm") could easily be dismissed by some wags as "Alice In Wonderland" on the prairie, with detours into "Eraserhead" and, believe it or not, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". The tenacious auteur of the weird has survived worse blows than those this bizarre, but oddly personal, fantasia will likely invite when--and being a Gilliam effort, "if"-- it secures a release. Cineaste lore has it that this was one of the only Toronto film festival screenings in the 30 year history of the event that failed to elicit a single round of applause following its premiere screening, and Toronto audiences are known to bestow dutiful accolades for just about anything, even "Loving Couples" and "Duets". I saw it at a press screening, where no one claps for a damn thing, so...

10 year old Jeliza-Rose (Ferland) is an only child who lives with her father Noah (Bridges), a middle-aged, still-aspiring musician, and layabout mother Queen Gunhilda (Tilly) in Los Angeles. When she's not helping her parents with their heroin habit and enduring her father's stoned-out monologues on Danish Jutland, she's engaging in conversations with her only friends: a collection of doll heads. When Gunhilda overdoses and dies, Noah insists that she be given a fiery Viking funeral--until his daughter talks him out of it--before he flees with his Jeliza-Rose on a bus trip to his mother's home on the Texas prairies.

They arrive to find a long-abandoned dump covered in dirt and graffiti. Noah immediately embarks on one of his "vacations" by shooting up again--this time a permanent one. Oblivious or uncaring that her father is dead, Jeliza-Rose pretties up his festering corpse in makeup and one of her grandmother's wigs and makes some new friends in the form of fireflies and a talking squirrel.

Out in the fields the girl meets the wraith-like Dell (McTeer), an obsessive woman from her father's past who lives with her manic, mentally challenged brother Dickens (Fletcher). Dell embalms Noah's corpse and repaints the house to create some semblence of a nuclear family, a perverse consensual fantasy that drives Jeliza-Rose even deeper into her own...

I have not read Mitch Cullin's novel "Tideland", but it's easy to see why Gilliam snatched it up (his rave is on the cover of the North American trade edition): its simple premise was perfect for him to infuse with his favorite ingredients . Here, again, he crafts a tragic and repellent reality entwined with a baroque fantasy world, oddball secondary characters, environments as psychic landscapes, and meticulous, far-from-random production design (in a Gilliam film, style is substance).

Jodelle Ferland--perhaps best known as the ghostly child in Stephen King's "Kingdom Hospital" miniseries-- is an amazing find and an actress of remarkable presence and conviction--and thank god for that, since here she's pretty much the whole damn show. With scenes of her helping her parents shoot up, and sexually experimenting with a too-friendly mentally handicapped "friend", this has to be the most disturbing kid's turn since David Bennett's debut as "Oskar" in "The Tin Drum". Bridges' brief role allows him some pathos before requiring to live (?) out the bulk of the story as "The Dude" gone Ma Bates. On the other hand, Jennifer Tilly's Courtney Love riff might be the most frightening thing Gilliam's ever committed to celluloid--those "baby" masks in "Brazil" included. McTeer and Fletcher are appropriately strange and appear to have been allowed to invent their top-of-the-lungs Jungian caricatures pretty much on-the-fly as they please.

Despite many surreal and often macabre set pieces, "Tideland" is a very small movie, concerned exclusively with Jeliza-Rose' subjective--and decidedly "skewed"--take on adult relationships before reaching a melancholy and moving ending that'll be a surefire turn off to those with an intolerance for ambiguity (who, presumably, wouldn't be caught dead at this film anyway).

Perhaps it's that Gilliam clearly loves these characters and the golden sandbox in which he's been allowed to play, or maybe it's that he got carried away being able to finally make a film from script-to-screen in under 12 months (the production was announced just last year during the Toronto film fest), but the worse thing about "Tideland" is that it's just too damn long. Even David Lynch had the good sense to trim 3o minutes out of "Eraserhead" following its first screening. Though challenging and often infuriating, "Tideland" is an inviting rabbit hole in which to disappear, but even Jeliza-Rose knew when it was time to snap out of fantasyland.

Robert J. Lewis