Terry Gilliam has lost his mind. And made maybe his best film.
You haven’t seen Tideland. Even I was barely aware of its release in 2006. From what I’ve read, it may be the most polarizing film I’ve ever seen. Most reviews are either one star or five. If you’re the type of person who is a moral absolutist, you will hate this film. If you believe that morals and behavior are culturally and socially derived, then you might enjoy it. If you’re fascinated by child psychology and the ability of a child’s imagination to shield themselves from trauma, you just might love it.
It’s almost a horror movie. Without giving too much away, I should mention that it resembles Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre in one respect: it looks into the lives of people who exist off of society’s moral grid. Norman Bates and Leatherface freaked me out not with their violence, but with the norms they fashioned for themselves, particularly their reverence for their dead relatives. The scariest thing about them is the thought that people like them may exist in the darker corners of modern society.
Add into that mix an innocent young girl (Jodelle Ferland, who gives an astounding performance that puts Anna Paquin’s Oscar to shame) growing up in that madness, and you’ve got Tideland. There are a lot of uncomfortable scenes, but they’re only uncomfortable to adults putting themselves into the shoes of the child. What most often makes a film resonate with people is the empathy of experience with the main character. You put yourself into his or her shoes. But if you’re an adult, you can’t quite see through a child’s eyes. You have assumptions and boundaries and preconceived notions about how people should and should not act, but children don’t yet have that. For example, there’s no difference for them between heroin and insulin – they’re both just things that are administered with a needle.
From all that I read about the film before I saw it, I knew that this would test my loyalty to Terry Gilliam – the only director who has never disappointed me, and who has most consistently produced motion pictures that I adore (Billy Wilder, Cameron Crowe and Steven Soderbergh are close runners-up, though). I need never worry again.