A word to the wise…….Contains spoilers
I’ve been a big fan of Terry Gilliam’s movies since I first saw ‘Brazil’ back in the 1980’s. Along with David Lynch, he has a singularity of vision that can be rare and beautiful and like Lynch he is (predictably) neglected and undervalued by the mainstream Hollywood sausage machine.
‘Tideland‘ is his 2005 adaptation of a novel by Mitch Cullin. I am unfamiliar with the book so can offer no thoughts on how faithful an adaptation it is, but my impression is that Gilliam does not stray too far from the original story. ‘Tideland’ is really the story of young Jeliza Rose, played (brilliantly) by Jodelle Ferland, a girl of 12 or so who has the misfortune to be the child of two heroin addicts. Her mother dies from a drug-related seizure very early on, so her father, played with some gusto by Jeff Bridges, spirits her away to his Mother’s place in Texas. The old lady is long dead and the house a deserted and vandalised mess and – just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for the young lady – Bridges OD’s and dies on their first night there.
But young Jeliza Rose is nothing if not a tough cookie. She has a rich ‘inner life’, aided and abetted by a retinue of doll’s heads which she attaches to her fingers and carries everywhere with her, exploring the house and the surrounding countryside. She is used to her father’s protracted periods of unconsciousness, so simply waits for him to come round and just refuses to acknowledge that, this time, he isn’t going to. It is at this point that she has a chance encounter with a neighbour who looks like The Wicked Witch of the West. This is the somewhat distracted Dell (Janet McTeer) who is allergic to bee-stings and wears a black bee-keeper’s hat and veil. Unbeknownst to Jeliza Rose, Dell and her father were lovers before he left Texas.
Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland) and one of her talking heads
Dell has a brother, Dickens (another brilliant performance from Brendan Fletcher) who has been partially lobotomised to stop him from having epileptic seizures and, one suspects, from carrying out further anti-social acts like parking the local School Bus on the nearby railway tracks so that a speeding express will hit it. Dickens and Jeliza Rose soon become friends, though one always has the sense that she is exploiting his gullibility for her own ends.
Dell & Dickens’ house is full of stuffed animals and this convenient sideline in taxidermy becomes useful once Dell realises that the increasingly malodorous body in Jeliza Rose’s parlour is in fact her lover of many years beforehand. So, she just does what any self-respecting Texas girl would do under such circumstances; eviscerates and stuffs him, then takes Jeliza Rose under her wing as part of ‘the family’.
Jeff Bridges gets stuffed…… (Janet McTeer & Jodelle Ferland discuss the finer points)
Things come to a head when Dell realises that Jeliza Rose is increasingly using her pre-pubescent wiles to manipulate her brother, but unknown to her, Dickens has already shared his ‘big secret’ with Jeliza Rose – this is that he sees the express trains that speed through as ‘monster sharks’ and he parked the bus acrosss the track because he is determined to ‘destroy the shark’. With this in mind, he has a substantial amount of dynamite, clearly stolen from a nearby quarry, and tells Jeliza Rose that he plans to use it in another attempt to destroy the ‘shark’.
Dell discovers the conspirators in her mother’s room – mother is also stuffed, incidentally – and physically assaults Jeliza Rose. This sends Dickens into a grand mal seizure, enabling Jeliza Rose to escape back to her own house. She does what any lonely daughter would do and curls up next to her late, stuffed Daddy, only to be woken in the middle of the night by a colossal explosion. Dickens has, of course, set off his dynamite and derailed a speeding express. Jeliza Rose wanders into the crash scene and is taken for one of the victims of the wreck herself. A woman befriends her and though she sees Dell, she hides from her and cultivates her new friend instead.
A strange tale indeed and one where Terry Gilliam succeeds in coaxing tremendous performances from Jodelle Ferland and Brendan Fletcher in particular. Critics approaching the movie by way of literature may see ‘Tideland’ as being part of the ‘Southern Gothic’ tradition that also takes in ‘To kill a mockingbird’ or ‘Midnight in the garden of good and evil’ - and even Stephen King’s ‘The Green Mile’.
Personally, I am reminded of a number of movies as well, notably ‘Psycho‘ for the taxidermy theme and other things and also Tobe Hooper’s original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. Unlike those two films, however, ‘Tideland’ sets out to disturb and unsettle us, but not to terrify us. Ultimately, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is the way in which Ferland”s corrupted Jeliza Rose simply detaches herself from her father in favour of Dickens and then abandons Dickens for the woman at the train crash site. Not quite ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ or Regan from ‘The Exorcist’ but pretty chilling nonetheless.
I suspect that in any review of Gilliam’s career, ‘Tideland‘ will be seen as a minor work, because although he gets great performances from some of his cast and though the movie is beautifully shot, it somehow lacks the alchemy that turned ‘The Fisher King’ or ‘Brazil’ into such special movies.
I began by comparing Terry Gilliam with David Lynch and it chills the blood to think what Lynch might have done with this material. In fact, it’s probably to Gilliam’s credit that he stops a plot with such ‘Grand Guignol’ potential from degenerating into a blood-spattered farce. I would pause only to raise an eyebrow at the seeming abundance of amateur taxidermists in rural Texas – in John Wayne movies folks used to sit out on the porch or verandah whittling bits of wood, not stuffing animals. Still, those were simpler days, I guess….