Someone once said that less is more, a statement to which director Terry Gilliam cinematically replies, "Fuck off." Tideland, adapted from Mitch Cullin's American Gothic novel, finds Gilliam riding off the rails with a self-parodic excess of his stylistic markers: wide, dutch angles; extreme close-ups; exaggerated acting; overwrought production design; fantastical special effects; and general grotesquerie. When it comes to these devices, nobody does them better, but good luck following all this sizzle to the steak.
In his other films, Gilliam has vacillated more responsibly between fantasy and recognizable human emotions and situations, frequently graced by subtle central performances. But this story—accurately described by the director as "Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho"—forbids any normal, undamaged characters. Gilliam's defiant irresponsibility when it comes to a viewer's basic needs will appeal to a select bunch so pissed at Hollywood that they'll accept rampant rebellion of any sort, the more extreme the better (and badness being no object).
The problem isn't that Tideland is offensive, though the average moviegoer may disagree. Ten-year-old Jodelle Ferland stars as traumatized moppet Jeliza-Rose. In the film's early scenes, Jeliza-Rose's aggressively drugged-out parents Noah (Jeff Bridges) and "Queen Gunhilda" (Jennifer Tilly) shoot up to take "vacations" from reality. When mom's vacation proves to be permanent, dad whisks Jeliza-Rose from their squalid, urban hovel to his squalid, rural childhood home in the middle of Texan nowhere. When Noah also checks out on the little girl, the sparse, Wyeth-esque landscape becomes an unlimited and foreboding playground for Jeliza-Rose's fertile imagination.
The girl's only semi-reliable companions are four disembodied doll heads, with whom she carries on both sides of conversations. Then things turn strange (hoo boy), as Jeliza-Rose meets her only neighbors: a psychotic taxidermist-slash-embalmer (Janet McTeer) and not one, but two stuttering young men. The stutterer-next-door is a lobotomized epileptic (Brendan Fletcher) who turns out to be a twisted-sweet love interest for the curiously unbothered ten-year-old.
And therein lies one of Gilliam's biggest problems. In a purposeful tonal shift from Cullin's novel, Gilliam and co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) make their point that kids are resilient by painting Jeliza-Rose as indifferent to the loss of her parents and her own precarious survival thereafter. As a result, the child seems inhuman—or possessed less with inner strength than a dissociative disorder—and Gilliam doubly so.
Tideland may be the ballsiest cinematic spree of the year, but it's also strictly unpleasant and, even granting Jeliza-Rose's child's-eye perspective, so unlikely as to be alien. (If this is the subjective point of view, what in God's name would the objective one look like? Maybe a watchable film, for starters.) The cultural allusions intellectually tickle (beware of bog mummies, windmills, and the Jesus-freak apocalypse), and thanks in no small part to DP Nicola Pecorini, the images are uniformly striking. But when Jeliza-Rose announces in the first scene, "Today, we're all going on a great trip!", know that it's to the center of an emotional black hole.