I’m writing this only because it’s the first film I’ve felt very strongly about in a long time, and because it’s so much better than another much-talked about film to which it can be easily compared.
First off, my love of Terry Gilliam’s films are as deep and abiding as my love of David Lynch’s. Watching their very different, but equally spectacular failures over the past year (Brothers Grimm and Inland Empire) made me sad for many reasons – first that it will decrease their chances to get future films made, and b/c neither works very quickly and they’re not young. It’s just one fewer chance for them to make another truly great film. I have no idea what Lynch will do next. There’s at least little doubt that Laura Dern was great in IE, and it was so purposefully experimental that maybe studios will say it doesn’t count against him. Brothers Grimm on the other hand had 2 A-list stars, and a marketing budget, all of which served to just exponentially build the millions of dollars the film must have lost – and it came right after his failed Depp prodcuction of la Mancha.
So Mr. Gilliam, would you like to re-trench here and just go for an easy Fisher King feel-good re-write? “Fuck You” is his answer. Before I get too deep into Tideland, let me rail against the over-rated, empty Pan’s Labyrinth awhile.
All of del Toro’s movies look nice and leave me disappointed, like an expensive meal that doesn’t taste as good as it looks and then makes me sick later in the evening. (The one exception might be the Devil’s Backbone). I don’t want to write much about this, but I’m going to rattle off a few things that bugged me about it: The girl was a selfish troublemaker who refused to help her mother even though she knew the difficult situation her mother was in. It’s high-gloss and little substance. (Though I like an homage to Kubrick’s ending of The Shining as much as anyone) And boy I was glad to see the Fascists lose at the end so that Spain could live happily ever after! Oh, wait a minute…
Tideland also centers around a little girl (younger than in Pan’s) Joliza-Rose, with a horrible real life that she copes with through a fantasy world. As in Pan, she’s a reader and precocious and has created another world that she slips in and out of. However, the moment of realization of what this girl is doing in her first scene standing in the kitchen with a spoon and a stove flame made my stomach drop in a way that del Toro’s furious foreshadowing of torture while shaving and CGI bugs flying around couldn’t. In fact, it only made me want to know what part of Spain is full of forests where it rains all the time.
Joliza-Rose is getting a kit full of heroin ready for her father, played by Jeff Bridges, and she expertly shoots him up, holding the needle between her teeth and making sure his cigarette doesn’t burn the place down. What happens from there is increasingly terrible, and yet, because it’s Gilliam, it’s very funny. Bridges is awesome. The girl is amazing. Gilliam holds off on a lot of special effects until late in the film (Possibly for budgetary reasons, but the restraint is perfect.), and the slow transformation between reality and fantasy is handled far better than in Pan’s.
I was constantly worried for this girl in Tideland and curious about what would happen next to her in a way that I never felt about the girl in Pan’s. Sorry, but if a monster tells you not to eat the food on the table because your life depends on it, and then you eat the food on the table, well, it might lead to a chase scene, but it’s your own damn fault. And don’t get me started on ruining your dress to hunt the giant toad.
Tideland was savaged by most critics, (though not by LA Weekly I say with a bit of pride.) and unseen by everyone else. It didn’t deserve to be so. That Gilliam would dare make this thing says a lot about his integrity as if it could ever be in doubt. (well, Brother’s Grimm did make me wonder for a minute) One might as well crucify puppies and then run for the Senate – or admit to being an atheist, I’m not sure which is worse these days – than to make a film like this right now and expect anyone to embrace it.
Tideland has got to be one of the best things I’ve seen in a year or more.