A Doll of a Film

What's the matter with Kansas? 'Tideland' has heroin-fueled answers

Tideland, says the MPAA, is "rated R for bizarre and disturbing content." Now, I can see how some prissy-ass MPAA ratings board soccer dad might want to protect his maidservants and unborn children from "disturbing" content, but bizarre content? How bizarre does something have to be for there to be intervention preventing unaccompanied minors from viewing it?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adaptation of a standard fairy-tale story: 11-year-old Jeliza-Rose is a good girl who takes extra precaution in preparing her daddy's heroin. Sadly, Mommy doesn't appreciate Jeliza-Rose, and expresses her disapproval by yelling at her and then dropping dead.

"Now we can eat all her chocolate bars!" says little Jeliza. But, no, Daddy says they have to move to Kansas. So Jeliza packs up her four best friends, a set of severed doll heads named Mystique, Satin Lips, Baby Blonde and Glitter, and gets on the bus.

Unfortunately, when they get to Grandmother's house in the Great Plains, Grandma is already dead. Plus, after a nice big helping of extra-special heroin, Daddy stops moving and breathing. Oh no! What is Jeliza-Rose to do?

But Jeliza-Rose is a very smart little girl, so she makes the best of her new life by decorating Daddy's corpse so it will look oh-so-pretty! Then, as all little girls must, she starts a disturbingly romantic relationship with a brain-damaged adult man. And, oh, yes! She also makes friends with a very nice one-eyed taxidermist who captures talking squirrels and fornicates with delivery men.

But wait, you may ask, when does this get "bizarre?" I would say the answer lies in the way that director Terry Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini have shot and staged this fairy-tale story. The camera floats freely around rooms, drifting to the ceiling and sinking to the floor as though it were underwater. Most of the time, it tilts drunkenly to one side or another.

But the best shots occur on the wide-open wheat fields where Jeliza-Rose runs about playing make-believe. With Grandma's sun-bleached and dilapidated two-story house jutting up in the solid-color field, a few spindly trees and some distant hills providing contrast, Gilliam and Pecorini have created something out of a bad-dream version of an Andrew Wyeth painting.

And like the Wyeth painting, Tideland has a quality that can only be found in America. While I'm sure it's not uncommon in Europe for a mentally challenged man to help a little girl put wigs and makeup on her father's corpse, only in America could it have the sense of playful innocence necessary to keep it from seeming creepy or recherché. So I can't really understand what the MPAA was so upset about.

With its stunning cinematography and inventive imagery, Tideland should have been great. But it's a decidedly flawed film, and not for the reason that the ratings board would have us believe. Rather the opposite, in fact: It's just a little dull.

Gilliam, who also wrote the script, is unconcerned with plot but very interested in exploring the mind of a fantasy-focused child. He does a great job weaving in bits of children's classics like the Narnia books, Peter Pan and especially Alice in Wonderland. And some of the fantasy sequences go beyond his normal penchant for simple weirdness to be actually illuminating into the ways of the 11-year-old psyche.

But he tends to make the same point repeatedly, and the redundancy adds up during Tideland's two-hour run time.

I can understand that he wants some of the backstory to unfold slowly, but the effect would have been no less strong if he'd trimmed out some of the fat and gotten more quickly to the gooey center of things, like the scenes shot from inside of Jeliza-Rose's dad's dead body. These are some of the best scenes of severed doll heads floating inside of Jeff Bridges' rib cage that have ever been put on film, and Gilliam's slow tease in getting to them is the kind of mean-spirited thing you'd expect from a man who renounced his U.S. citizenship during wartime.

It's also a bit of a shame that Bridges has to fade out so early in the film. As Jeliza-Rose's dad, he's got the perfect mix of heroin-addled whimsy and leather-skinned horror. He does do a great job playing a corpse, but it was probably more fun for him to do the earlier scenes where he got to talk and move about and breathe and stuff.

Nonetheless, the acting is not diminished by his absence since young Jodelle Ferland, as Jeliza-Rose, could move mountains with her weird monologues, and the scenes where she talks to and voices the parts of her severed doll heads have the kind of compelling weirdness you normally only get from closeted Republican operatives giving speeches about the horrors of man-felching.

Like those speeches, Tideland is worth seeing, even if it goes on a bit too long and makes the same point a little too often. It's the rare case of a film that understands what fairy tales were really about, and isn't afraid to put that level of horror and naïve eroticism on the screen. Perhaps most importantly, in spite of its flaws, Tideland shows a depth that Gilliam's earlier movies lacked. If he can now rein in his excesses, he might finally make the film that his talents have always promised.

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