This review was updated on September 20, 2005.
Made back-to-back with Terry Gilliam’s somewhat commercial but roundly panned “The Brothers Grimm,” indie-produced “Tideland” sees the fanciful helmer overindulging his dark side with a slice of Gothic nastiness. Story about an imaginative orphan living alone under open skies is anchored by an ace perf from tyke thesp Jodelle Ferland, and features the helmer’s signature spooky production design, but is dragged down by a sputtering script and torpid pacing. Way too disturbing for kids and too weird for most grown-ups, “Tideland” is likely to wash up in boutique distribution where Gilliam’s name will pull in only his most devoted fan base.
Largely faithful to the poetic, well-received novel by Mitch Cullin, screenplay filters the story through the eyes of young heroine Jeliza-Rose (witchy-eyed 10-year-old Ferland), the precocious only child of rock guitarist Noah (Jeff Bridges, almost unrecognizable at first) and the fancifully named Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), a bedridden hysteric with a long, blond fright-do.
A funhouse-mirror version of familial happiness features Jeliza-Rose as mother’s little helper, obediently cooking syringes full of heroin for each parent. The so-called grown-ups are preoccupied with their own obsessions (the boggy Danish region of Jutland for dad, chocolate for mom). Jeliza-Rose’s only friends are doll heads she’s torn from their bodies and turned into finger puppets she talks to.
When Gunhilda dies from an overdose, Jeliza-Rose has to persuade Noah not to give the corpse an incendiary Viking-style send off in their apartment.
Noah buses with Jeliza-Rose to his mother’s home somewhere on the prairie (pic was filmed in Saskatchewan), where he grew up. His mother appears to have died, and the broken-down house, the look of which recalls the famous Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World,” is empty, covered in dust and cobwebs.
As Jeliza-Rose sets about exploring the house’s creepy corners and the rippling wheat fields outside, Noah settles down in an armchair to “go on vacation,” this time permanently, with another dose of smack. Jeliza-Rose either doesn’t understand or refuses to believe he’s dead, and when his corpse begins to smell and discolor (growing progressively more hideous as the film goes on), she applies make-up to it and dresses it in her grannie’s blond wig.
Wandering through the fields with her doll heads, Jeliza-Rose soon meets the black-clad Dell (Janet McTeer), a woman from Noah’s past with one cloudy eye and an obsession with taxidermy that soon comes in handy. Living with Dell is her mentally challenged brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), with whom Jeliza-Rose develops a queasy-making, quasi-sexual relationship.
From the point at which Noah dies, pic is stippled with fantastical do-dahs like talking squirrels, doll’s heads that momentarily come to life, and clouds of CGI fireflies, but not a lot really happens for 90-odd minutes until a morbid, shock ending arrives.
Pic’s atmosphere of dirty realism never ripens beyond a juvenile flirtation with the macabre, which might have played more effectively with a 75-minute running time instead one of 122.
Out of a good cast hamming it up by necessity to fit the pic’s fairy-tale vibe, young but already experienced thesp Ferland (“They”) grounds the movie nicely with a piquant turn. Even when her character is play-acting at being mannered and self-conscious, Ferland’s perf remains spontaneous and natural.
While pic’s American Gothic production design is packed with detail in typical Gilliam style, the film looks positively Spartan compared with the ungainly clutter of “The Brothers Grimm.” Make-up and prosthetics work executed to render Noah’s corpse, and eventually the stuffed and varnished bodies seen later on, are as impressively realistic as they are lurid. Widescreen lensing by Nicola Pecorini, using distorting lens and searing cascades of sunlight, enhances the mood and makes the film more bearable.