If you bother seeing Terry Gilliam’s critically maligned Tideland, you will find yourself struggling to find a way to watch the damn thing. If you’re not going to try to ride the choppy waves of Tideland, don’t stick around for the duration. It’s not worth it. But if you’re an incorrigible optimist in search of a way to get through this episodic nightmare that must be Gilliam’s idea of dream logic, I think I can help.
The bulk of Tideland follows its little girl protagonist running amok in a field of wheat freaking out on girlish fantasies and roping in a disturbed epileptic headcase along the way. But before it gets there, it stages an extended prologue in which we meet her junky parents. Jennifer Tilley flails about in pursuit of a caricature of a mother who’d sentence any kid to three lifetimes of therapy, but all that comes out is a yelping bag of a lady, a regrettable incarnation that threatens decent notions like the first commandment. And sure enough, Gilliam kills her off after two scenes. When her husband, played by Jeff Bridges with little more than an assortment of tics and jaw crunches, finds the death of his baby’s mother a tad unsettling, his daughter tries to comfort him by telling him that now they can eat all her chocolate. Her suggestion doesn’t come off as a gag, nor is it underlined in the scene as an indicator of the girl’s loose grip on reality. It’s played more as a natural extension of the disdainful dynamic she had with her mother, established two scenes earlier in the movie. The little girl is not phased by mom’s death, because mom was a clingy jerk. Even this early on, Tideland feels pretty lost.
And while it’s Tideland that goes off the map so early, it’s the viewer who must navigate these spotty grounds, and the going ain’t easy. Bridges and his daughter flee their home after mom’s death. There are hints that Bridges thinks he’ll be blamed for the death – or perhaps murder – but the death, his paranoia, and daughter and dad’s flight are such obvious devices to get the movie going that any hang-ups about character motivation are obliterated by the transparency of the set-up.
Arriving in Tideland
Father and daughter catch a Greyhound out to the aforementioned wheat field to live in grandma’s house, a long-abandoned abode which boasts such well-punctuated graffiti as “Fuckin’ Shithole” on its interior.
Upstairs, the little girl spends some time chasing a talking squirrel in the wall, in the first of many mini-trajectories that make up Tideland, miniature narrative pursuits nestled within the viscous hodgepodge of fantasy and dementia that is this movie. Another one of these little flights concerns some of the girl’s friends, a collection of doll heads that she voices and talks to. When she goes to meet a neighbor and doesn’t want to bring the doll heads, Gilliam spends a lot of time on the girl’s mini-crisis: how will she get away from the doll heads without them getting suspicious or jealous? So a scene ensues in which she must try to put the doll heads to sleep. As the scene goes on (and on), it becomes clear that Tideland takes her task seriously. Any movie this stubborn about keeping a doll head lullaby from being a throwaway moment starts to mount up some intrigue in its favor, even though you can feel a palpable disconnect between the movie you’re watching and the one Gilliam thinks he’s making.
Elements don’t add up: on the tedious hunt for the squirrel, the music tries to cue moments of suspense that never register. When the little girl runs somewhere urgently, hurried along by the score, the camera moves lugubriously, too far away from her, almost stoic. The squirrel grows more eloquent every time he shows up, but his appearances never build to anything.
Navigating The Nefarious Bramble
In fact, nothing comes to much of anything in Tideland, and the only way to watch it is to get off on its abandon. Somewhere before the halfway mark, right around the time the little girl has gone nuts, as Bridges has begun giving the remainder of his performance as a corpse, right after the line “there isn’t a bee alive who doesn’t want me dead” is uttered, it becomes clear that this mess of a movie has no intention of straightening out.
By the time Tideland is really up and running, this is the kind of thing that flies: poised on the crest of yet another mini-arc within the story, the little girl and her epileptic pal are digging holes in the ground, looking for a lost doll head. The deafening sound of a passing train (or “monster shark,” in the parlance of the picture) punctuated by gunshots knocks them to the ground. The epileptic’s mom tears over a hill with a rifle in hand and pushes the little girl down a rabbit hole. If that’s not enough, as she falls down the rabbit hole, a copy of Alice in Wonderland floats by. When the little girl wakes up in her house she goes downstairs to see the epileptic’s mom kissing Bridges’ corpse, calling his post-mortem farts “sinister apples.”
The little girl’s doll heads begin talking without her help, her fantasies clash with her epileptic friend’s when she dislikes his imaginary submarine, and even nuclear paranoia finds its way into the story (albeit briefly). But there are strange stops along the way, and the rapid-fire dead-end episodes don’t stop flashing across the screen, building to such a confused mash-up of cursory themes and half-cocked ideas that Gilliam starts to get away with grotesqueries: near the end, we follow the little protagonist as she tries to get a peek at her epileptic pal’s pecker. But Gilliam plays these scenes with sincerity – as he did earlier with the doll heads’ bedtime story – and they start to register as moments of clarity.
Scenes begin to ricochet off one another, and a cacophonous din envelops the rocky path through Tideland. Even though it swells with fantasy and Gilliam shoots everything like a circus freak show, it’s not a grandiose affair. As the nonsense and the self-consciousness reaches a breaking point, they start to clear themselves away, and the distillation effect is perplexing and sometimes exciting.
As close to unwatchable as Tideland gets, it might be unique in that its central concern is to draw the descent of a preadolescent into complete madness. The movie gets lost in her head and never recovers (well, it never had much promise to begin with), and Gilliam is too ready to employ clichés like rabbit holes for the fragments to coagulate, but the fact that there’s something original simmering within this silliness (and you’ve really got to see it to comprehend the extent of it) speaks to the potential that can be found in making earnest attempts to navigate otherwise unrewarding terrain.