As he often does, Gilliam populates his movie with a cast of peculiar, charmingly overdone individuals. Jeliza-Rose's parents are caricatures of selfish, negligent drug addicts. Dell is a babbling, one-eyed hag who terrifies those around her and makes use of her skills in taxidermy in very disturbing ways. Dickens is a twitchy, lobotomized young man whose mannerisms and oddities, while extreme, have a ring of truth to them. As melodramatically strange as all these characters undoubtedly are, Gilliam, nonetheless, both gives them a humanity and raises them above the beings of the ordinary world so that they seem more like undying entities from myth or folklore than like the ephemeral creatures of everyday experience.
Fortunately, Jeliza-Rose is herself as entrancing as are the persons around her. Gilliam has managed to give life to a very real, if very sad young girl. It is hard to believe that any sensitive viewer could fail to engage with the protagonist and feel the pain she endures. The director, over the course of the film, shows how Jeliza-Rose is made to prepare her parents' heroin and to help them inject it, how her only friends are the heads of dolls she arranges on the tips of her fingers and to which she speaks as though they were living beings, and how she adores Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. All these elements, and others, reveal a child whose life is grotesquely askew, and who is herself, as a result, more than a little disturbed.
Amongst the most touching moments of the film are those in which Gilliam allows his unhappy protagonist the chance to form a relationship with Dickens. The director shows how Jeliza-Rose is infatuated with this young man, claiming that he is her husband, how she dresses up for him, and how she seeks intimacy with him, both emotionally and physically. Some of these scenes can be mildly uncomfortable to watch, I will admit, but they are so authentic and honest in their portrayal of a young girl's heart that I was easily able to overcome such feelings and engage myself with Jeliza-Rose and experience her emotions with a painful poignancy.
Even if such qualities were insufficient to give the movie value, visually, Tideland is mesmerizing from its first moment to its last. It is filled with one gorgeous or haunting image after another. The director's presentations to the viewer of visions of Jeliza-Rose running through the tall, golden grasses surrounding her new home, standing beneath a withered tree with her grandmother's house in the background, and wandering below the windows of aging farmhouses are as lovely and as enticing as are any of the pictures of Andrew Wyeth, which they often resemble. Moreover, Gilliam's depictions of Jeliza-Rose's fantasy world, that is filled with rabbit holes plunging to the center of the Earth, mysterious passageways in eerie houses packed with decayed marvels, dancing, fairy-like fireflies, talking squirrels, living dolls' heads, and more, are just as intriguing and just as magical. Even the most intimate scenes, those revealing Jeliza-Rose's growing friendship and romance with Dickens, have a sense of closeness that draws the viewer into the world the pair inhabit and allows him to engage with those persons.
There is, in fact, a sense of sad wonder that runs through the movie. It is always magical and it is always tragic. Happily, Gilliam has so effectively interwoven these threads that each complements the other and heightens the other's emotivity.
Tideland is amongst the most wonderfully sorrowful and beautifully disturbing films I have encountered. It is not only one of the director's best movies, it is one of the best movies I have had the pleasure ever to see.
Review by Keith Allen
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