Don't believe what you've read about Tideland. The way it's being advertised, it's the same sort of film as Pan's Labyrinth, a tale of one girl's flight into her imagination to escape the horror's of real life, only to find that her imagination is just as dark. This is hardly the case. Tideland is the story of a girl in the prairie who lets her imagination run wild after her father has overdosed on heroine. Now, that may sound like what I just said it's not, so let me elaborate. There isn't any extensive quest through her imagination, only to realize that it was all a dream and everything's ok. This is not Time Bandits. The filghts of her imagination make up small parts of the film, depending on how you view the ending.
They may be small in the amount of time they take up, but they leave a lasting impression because of their sheer beauty. Seeing a whole house sinking into the ground like a battleship can leave quite an impression. But that's probably not the sort of image most people will remember. When we see Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) cooking up a shot of heroine for her father, Noah (Jeff Bridges), I wouldn't be surprised if many people are so disgusted that they cannot move past it. And we see that within the first 10 minutes. Within the first 20 minutes, Jeliza-Rose's mother, Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly) has overdosed, with her father to follow suit soon enough. All in all, the first half an hour or so are wonderfully frightening and disorienting.
Though it's important to get past the shocks of the beginning of the film, it's necessary to keep them in the back of your mind, as they are referenced numerous times within the film. Jeliza-Rose has a set of four doll heads that keep her company, and each has its own voice and personality, each voiced by Ferland. At one point late in the film, we see the main doll head, the British accented Mystique, on top of a body that we can recognize as belonging to Jeliza-Rose's mother. This speaks volumes to the character of Jeliza-Rose, that these doll heads, which represent different aspects of her own psyche, also represent the mother figure she now lacks.
Mothers play an important role in Tideland, especially when talking about Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and Dell (Janet McTeer). Noah's mother, who was supposed to be in the house he and Jeliza-Rose move to, is not there, and Dell and Dickens' mother is also dead. It's revealed that Noah and Dell were once "kissers," and so Dell takes the form of a surrogate mother for Jeliza-Rose. She shares a lot of characteristics with Queen Gunhilda, most notably their strong mood swings. In one scene, Dell goes from singing Jesus' praises while cleaning Jeliza-Rose's house to trying to kill a squirrel that lives in Jeliza-Rose's walls. After Jeliza-Rose has discovered Dell and Dickens' big secret (I'm going to tell it here, but suffice it to say it relates intimately with this ongoing motif), Dell refuses to give Jeliza-Rose any food. This is also after Jeliza-Rose and Dickens become kissers (and only kissers), leading to a humorous sequence of Jeliza-Rose and Dickens thinking her stomach rumbling is a baby in her stomach from kissing. At this point, Jeliza-Rose declares that she expects to give birth in the next few days, around the time that the film ends.
All of this mother talk comes together in the end of the film. I'm going to go into plot points, so consider this your spoiler warning.
The end of the film centers on a train crash, which Jeliza-Rose thinks of as the end of the world. This brings in elements from earlier, including Dickens' trying to derail the train, which he described as a "monster shark." Jeliza-Rose rushes out to see the dead monster shark, and runs into a woman who sounds a whole lot like Glitter Girl, another one of Jeliza-Rose's doll heads. The woman decides that they should take care of each other, essentially taking over as Jeliza-Rose's mother figure. Dell shows up, looking for the missing Dickens. This is the first time that the film presents a mother figure (Dickens and Dell are brother and sister) without her child, instead of the other way around. The effect is striking and puts a real face on the sense of loss that pervades the whole film, especially since it is a child now gone instead of a parent.
The final part of the film shows Jeliza-Rose sitting down with her new mother figure and looking at the fireflies buzzing around the train wreck. I have seen other views on the ending, but I took it to be a revelation of sorts that links back to the beginning of the movie, possibly showing that the majority of the film was in Jeliza-Rose's imagination. The very first scene of the film shows Jeliza-Rose sitting in an overturned schoolbus next to railroad tracks staring at fireflies buzzing around before a train comes rushing by. Before the train arrives, we hear Jeliza-Rose talking to her doll heads about the fireflies. She says the same exact things to this woman.
Spoilers over. Moving on.
Of course, this being a Terry Gilliam film, the images are gorgeous. Nicola Pecorini picks up where he left off in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The colors are extremely vivid, and the skewed camera angles, as usual, continually disorient the viewer. It is worth noting, though, that the strange angles disappear at the end of the film, suggesting a reestablishment in the real world. Since Tideland features a great deal of action in a wheat field, there will be inevitable comparisons with that pure object of beauty, Days of Heaven. While Terry Gilliam's images cannot quite compete with Terrence Malick's, they are close to that level of beauty.
Ferland is a true revelation, playing up to 5 different characters in one scene, if you include the doll heads. She lends both a strong emotional grounding and a refreshing naivete to the character of Jeliza-Rose. Jeff Bridges is great while he's alive, but it's Jennifer Tilly who really steals her scenes as a mother who'll nearly hug her daughter to death and then start beating her for taking some chocolate. The cast is just amazing, and there is everything in place to make this a great film. Now if only somebody will take notice.
Don't believe the hype. Terry's back.