I can describe Gilliam’s latest only as a gorgeous nightmare. Every shot is beautiful, with a vividness of color that hasn’t been seen since Danny Boyle’s Millions, and in one scene Gilliam interprets the phrase “amber waves of grain” with a breathtaking literalness.
However (or I should say moreover) there are several scenes that in any other movie would be visions of unnerving horror yet, because of the absolute innocence of the young female protagonist, their inherent repugnance is completely neutralized. Several hours after the movie I’m still amazed how it was possible to accomplish such a psychological feat.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the images are disturbing while watching them, but Jeliza-Rose makes their evil practically melt away by her presence. I wish I could describe without spoiling the story (such as it is — “the events” would be more accurate) the kinds of images Gilliam gives us but you would probably be repulsed. Even citing the movies they are reminiscent of would ruin the surprises.
The movie could be interpreted any number of ways, the most mundane being that the girl’s naivete makes her oblivious to evil or that her abusive background triggered psychological blocks to protect her. In terms of the literal storyline, sure, there are clinical explanations for her behavior, but such rationales would be depressingly reductive.
Tideland is the first time I’ve ever seen what Tolkien expressed by Tom Bombadil’s utter immunity to the Ring. Jeliza-Rose is like Tom: so completely innocent — in the good way — that the greatest evil is powerless against him. It is not a denial of the objectivity of evil to recognize its subjective ability to influence us only insofar as it has a foothold in us to latch onto. Like the Ring is to Bombadil, objects of horror become Jeliza-Rose’s playthings because of the purity of her imagination.
Speaking of her imagination, the most obvious and consistent references in the movie are to Alice in Wonderland — hence “Jeliza” — but there is no single point at which reality dissolves into fantasy for her. Rather the boundary between them is constantly in flux as Jeliza-Rose “narrates” the story aloud by talking to — and in the voices of — her dolls. The result is an acting tour-de-force by Jodelle Ferland (last seen in Silent Hill) who creates six different voices, including a squirrel’s voice that will make you forget Steve Carell’s in Over the Hedge.
But the central “Alice” theme is interwoven with strands from many other sources such as Norse mythology, as the story begins with Viking-rocker Jeff Bridges (channelling The Dude) setting out in search of ancient Jutland, but not before attempting to resurrect the Nordic funeral pyre tradition in a non-traditional way. Though it is unquestionably Ferland who carries the show, Bridges’ relatively passive performance will no doubt remain one of his most memorable.