Tideland marks Terry Gilliam’s move into what should be a fitting subgenre: Southern gothic magic realism. Its heroine, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), is a prepubescent girl who lives out in the country, spending her days running through grass and playing with dolls. The horror of her home life is established immediately: her father, Noah (Jeff Bridges), is a washed-up rocker who has nothing to show from a lifetime of touring but a heroin habit, while mom Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly) looks like a video vixen aged into a John Waters character—out of shape from lethargy, bad teeth and hair made brittle and sloppy from years of chemical styling. Gunhilda barely has time to be introduced before she chokes to death, while Noah only manages to frantically relocate himself and Jeliza-Rose to a new hovel before he dies of an overdose.

Jeliza-Rose’s descent into a kind of dissociative madness places her well within Gilliam’s wheelhouse of desperate dreamers and frantic hallucinators. Her personality fragments among the worn, chipped doll heads she totes with her, and on occasion the girl’s perspective disappears into reveries that turn her surroundings into animated fantasias, such as one sequence in which dusty farmland turns to an underwater realm. Gilliam’s wide-angle framing of Jeliza-Rose’s twisted world is wrapped around a setting that cribs liberally, and bafflingly, from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The opening shot, for example, coalesces from a galactic swirl of long grass into close-ups of locusts; later, Noah takes his daughter to a house that looks exactly like the one from Malick’s film, albeit rotted by time and abandon, with white paint stripped to reveal chipped wood and a thoroughly scavenged and moldy interior.

The best Gilliam films strike a balance between their freewheeling movement and a clear progression of the protagonist getting swept up in the frenzy, but Tideland jumbles both its lead and its style from the start. There’s no gradual descent into madness, merely a lateral motion from the grotesquerie on display from the first moments. Jeliza-Rose, effectively on her own even when her parents were alive, is already primed to compartmentalize the trauma of their deaths. Thus the film has no real sense of escalation, and one can only look at a kaleidoscope for so long before you notice the patterns repeating. It’s especially noticeable here as Gilliam locks the action around the same location, preventing his usual production design marvels from distracting from the threadbare plot. Instead, the camera sits in the rotting house like Noah’s decomposing corpse, static and gradually bloating with time. Even the cinematography is garish and off-putting, color-timed to the cloudy, brownish-yellow of stale piss, with Gilliam’s trademark fish-eye lenses stretching the dimensions of everything while exploring nothing.

As Jeliza-Rose, Ferland is broadly reduced to an addled naïf, outpacing her reality by diving into the absurdity of her warped perspective. With her exaggerated corn-pone accent and breathless speech, Jeliza-Rose projects a simplistic image of innocence, one that is not so much complicated as callously made ironic when she meets the strange siblings Dell (Janet McTeer) and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher). The former appears almost as an apparition of death, cloaked in thick, black layers out of a paranoia of bees, while the latter is intellectually disabled and lives in fear of a nearby passenger train that occasionally roars through the antiquated countryside in a bewildering blur of modernity. Jeliza-Rose watches these two with curiosity, idly peeking on Dell having sex with a delivery man and giggling at Dickens’ nervous behavior.

The latter relationship forms the core of much of the film’s second half, and it plunges Tideland from the offensively dull into the simply offensive. The girl’s uncomprehending, amused reactions to Dickens’ moments of fright and inscrutable actions already skirt the line of acceptability, but soon she develops feelings for the young man that border on the sexual despite her young age. Without question, the worst recurring feature of magical realism, with its frequent emphasis on children projecting escapism from their grim lives, is the spectre of sexual abuse and pedophilia. That Jeliza-Rose is the one who initiates romance with Dickens feels like a cop out, a way to insert this angle while vaguely displacing responsibility for exploitation by muddying lines of consent with a child and intellectually disabled man. It’s bullshit, and had the film not bombed catastrophically upon release, it might have been remembered enough to surface during discussion of the director’s recent, hideous comments regarding the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Gilliam has run child characters and actors through gauntlets before, and the ending of Tideland, with its protagonist left bewildered and traumatized, obviously recalls the coda of Time Bandits. Yet this film has none of the offsetting whimsy and adventure of Gilliam’s earlier child-centric features, instead sinking into the mire of its nasty, muddied sexual politics and a trudging motion through a dead-end plot. It’s the clear nadir of Gilliam’s career, though to call it such still fails to give a full account of its aesthetic stasis or its thematic callousness. It’s the film not of a seasoned and imaginative director but a snotty undergraduate mistaking bleak nihilism for the serious confrontation. It is an offensive mess whose only saving grace is that its incoherence renders it easily forgotten, leaving even its provocations to fade immediately from memory.

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