Friday, August 11, 2006

Review - Tideland

In 2003 Terry Gilliam signed on to direct a big-screen version of The Brothers Grimm for Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and most viewers saw it as a move which paradoxically could be seen as both a marriage made in heaven and a marriage made in hell. Surely Gilliam's unique filmmaking style and twisted sensibility could meld beautifully with the dark fairytales of the Grimms; but could he successfully implement his vision on the film under the fastidious control of the Weinsteins?

Predictably, production on The Brothers Grimm was dogged throughout by acrimony and frustration; and the film finally limped into cinemas in 2005, only to limp away shortly afterwards, having been derided by most critics as a hectic and confused mess. It was the same old story for Gilliam, a man whose work has never fit the Hollywood system, but this story has resulted in a curious side note.

During the six month stand-off which occurred between Gilliam and the Weinsteins, the director went off to make Tideland; a smaller film which he has said was something of a cathartic experience for him, an opportunity to escape all the constraints which surround big-budget productions and to rekindle his passion for filmmaking. But if Gilliam has indeed cut himself off from the usual obstacles which plague his films, then we can only assume he must take full responsibility for producing this barely watchable garbage.

Adapted from Mitch Cullin's novel of the same name, Tideland is the story of young Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) who lives at home with her two junkie parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). Her dad Noah is a burnt-out old rock star who is obsessed with taking a trip to the mystical Nordic fjords, while her mother is a shrieking and bloated woman who passes the time between her fixes by gorging on chocolate in bed. This life may seem an unhappy one to the outsider, but Jeliza-Rose seems happy enough; helping out dad by cooking up his heroin and preparing the needles for his 'vacations'.

Right from the start, the problems which blow wholes in Tideland's ambitions are all too evident. The performances are over-the-top, every action is thrust aggressively in the viewer's face, and the tone is relentlessly loud, loud, loud. This is Gilliam at his most, shall we say, idiosyncratic. He's a director who has never been the master of understatement and in Tideland he goes for broke, pushing everything to the very limit. If you like Gilliam's style then this may sound like a delicious prospect; but if you're not on board with Terry's magical mystery tour from the very first minute, you'll be in for a very, very long two hours.

At least things improve slightly when Gunhilda (Tilly) suffers an overdose and dies early in the picture, ensuring that at least one insufferable individual won't be bothering us any more. Jeliza-Rose dissuades her father from giving his wife a traditional Viking burial which would also burn the house down, and instead Noah whisks his daughter off to his childhood home on the prairies, leaving his former spouse to decompose in peace. Once the pair arrive at the house in which Noah was born and raised, they find it to be nothing more than a dilapidated shack, uninhabited for years. Noah sits down for another of his 'vacations', and Jeliza-Rose dutifully helps prepare his fix, but this vacation turns out to be a permanent one; and as Noah sits slowly rotting away in his armchair, Jeliza-Rose has to find other ways to entertain herself while she waits for daddy to wake up.

Jeliza-Rose's subsequent adventures manifest themselves through a series of fantastical scenes in which her imagination runs wild. But it is just a young girl's fervent imagination on display, or is insanity taking hold of Jeliza-Rose? Does she really believe her father is just sleeping, or is she simply unwilling or unable to contemplate the truth?

Gilliam attempts to filter everything through Jeliza-Rose here, to make us view the movie through her eyes alone, but he fails miserably. Jodelle Ferland is a bright, precocious presence; but her performance is much too mannered and theatrical, and it quickly becomes cloying. As she spends so much of the film alone, Jeliza-Rose has a group of dolls' heads which she has given names and wears as finger puppets, and she chats ceaselessly to these inanimate friends. Ferland has to carry the picture on her shoulders - appearing in almost every scene - but Gilliam has directed her to perform at such a pitch that nothing ever seems real. She is supposed to be displaying a whole kaleidoscope of emotions throughout the film; but whether Jeliza-Rose is feeling fear, awe or enchantment, nothing really registers with the viewer.

Frankly, Jeliza-Rose's trips into fantasy worlds never convinced me because they never seemed like genuine products of this young character's imagination. Instead, you can feel Gilliam straining to leave his mark on every frame of the picture, whipping up every scene into such a frenzy that at times the young lead looks as bemused as the rest of us. This is a staggeringly self-indulgent, grating and ugly piece of work. The effects look cheap and thrown together, the cinematography is alternately harsh and dull, and there isn't a straight camera angle in the whole damn picture. Rarely have I seen a film thrown together so haphazardly, by a filmmaker who really should know better.

Poor Ferland is at the mercy of her director's instructions, but some of the other actors in the cast should also know better than this. I've always thought that Jeff Bridges is an actor who can be relied upon to deliver a good performance, no matter how bad the film he's starring in may be. I shall have to revise this theory after Tideland, because Bridges' turn here is surely the nadir of his career. He's a boorish and immediately dislikeable presence when he appears on screen, and he shambles his way through his handful of scenes, spewing his lines out of the side of his mouth in an almost unintelligible drawl. In fact, I preferred Bridges once his character had died and was simply sitting motionless as his body wasted away.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Dell (Janet McTeer), a local witch who has an unhealthy interest in taxidermy, and her mentally handicapped brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who strikes up a potentially dangerous relationship with Jeliza-Rose. The relationship between this childlike adult male and ten year-old girl may stray into shocking territory for some, but I was too bored by this point to be shocked by anything Tideland could produce. I had given up trying to engage with any of the characters or trying to find a single identifiable emotion in the film; and none of the increasingly extreme and madcap set-pieces Gilliam throws at the screen in the latter stages were going to overcome my antipathy.

Gilliam fans have claimed in the past that this director has been prevented from creating masterpieces by studio bosses who try to control him and prevent him from realising his wild visions. But what Tideland needed, more than anything, was for somebody to say no to Gilliam; for somebody to point out when he'd taken things too far. Instead, he was left to his own devices, and the result is two hours of almost unendurable bullshit which may test the patience of Gilliam apologists to the limit. Gilliam has spent years playing the role of the reckless rebel, claiming the whole world is against him; but the time may have come to acknowledge the fact that Terry Gilliam really is his own worst enemy.