Written by Vince Freeman
Even though motion pictures are an art form few filmmakers approach their projects as works of expression. Terry Gilliam is a director who takes an artistic approach to his films and tells stories that have the ability to show an audience something they may have never seen before. His films infuse tragic comedy with phantasmagorical worlds to tell offbeat yet heartfelt stories of the human condition. The characters in Gilliam’s films are very relatable and believable despite their surreal dispositions and surroundings. TIDELAND, Gilliam’s tenth movie as a director, is seen through the eyes of a somewhat delusional ten-year old girl, Jeliza-Rose, who reacts to life and death with a dramatically eccentric flair. Gilliam uses his uniquely artistic style to show the perspective of this highly imaginative little girl and how she blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.
Terry Gilliam said in his introduction for TIDELAND that, “Many of you are not going to like this film… There are many of you who aren’t going to know what to think when the film finishes but hopefully you’ll be thinking… If it’s shocking it’s because it’s innocent… So I suggest you forget everything you’ve learned as an adult.” It may seem like a bizarre concept that innocence can be shocking but that is one example of how Terry Gilliam stands apart from almost every other filmmaker. His idiosyncratic vision helps him to tell unorthodox stories with offbeat characters which are often seen through an imaginative child’s point of view. This may be why his movies have such a unique ability to reach people. The main challenge in appreciating Gilliam’s films is for viewers to step outside of their own perceptions and see the world through his characters’ eyes. There is no better example of this than TIDELAND. The world that Terry Gilliam establishes is as dark and morbid as any conceived before or after this story. It is not the kind of world that many people are willing to explore. Those who are disposed to take this journey with Jeliza-Rose will see a truly beautiful story, regardless of its gruesome theme.
Jeliza-Rose shares a very bleak existence with her parents but because she is an innocent child she is not aware that her surroundings could be as horrible as they actually are. This is due in large part to the example her parents set by escaping reality every chance they get. Jeliza-Rose’s father, Noah, is a musician who takes “vacations” by shooting up heroin and fantasizes about touring Jutland with his band. A fantasy that his little girl shares enthusiastically with him. Jeliza-Rose’s mother, dubbed Queen Gunhilda by Noah, is a self-absorbed neurotic who stays in bed all day smoking cigarettes, eating chocolate and feeling sorry for herself. Needless to say, Jeliza-Rose feels a much stronger bond with her father who shares her gift for musing unlike her mother who weighs on her like someone drowning. Jeliza-Rose deals with reality by escaping into a quixotic fantasy world of her own. She shares this lost world with her imaginary friends, four doll heads. These doll heads represent Jeliza-Rose’s bitter conscience and sometimes pronounce to her that she is not dealing with reality but the clever little girl easily brushes those comments aside. Ironically, Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary friends are her strongest link to reality. Imaginary fireflies also appear to Jeliza-Rose which she sees as playful and comforting.
TIDELAND begins with Jeliza-Rose helping her father shoot heroin and watching him fade into oblivion. Then, the little girl must endure her mother’s grievances about the cruelty of existence. Queen Gunhilda dies very early in the story from an apparent methadone overdose. Seeing his wife dead harshens Noah’s high. In contrast, Jeliza- Rose realizes that she and her father can now share her mother’s box of chocolate bars that she kept next to her on the bed. In a fit of panic, Noah tries to give Queen Gunhilda a Viking funeral by lighting her bed on fire. Jeliza-Rose keeps a cool head and uses one of her fantasies to quell her father’s paranoia. Noah and Jeliza-Rose flee to his childhood home, a desolate and dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Jeliza-Rose views this, as well as everything else that happens to her, as an adventure. She also treats the people she encounters along the way as characters in her little world. Soon after arriving at the farmhouse, Noah overdoses on heroin and dies in his living room chair. Jeliza-Rose deals with her father’s death as if he were just taking an extended vacation. She plays dress up with Noah’s decaying corpse and talks to him as if he were one of her imaginary friends. This may be the clearest example that poor Jeliza-Rose deals with the world around her by putting a distorted spin on her circumstances. Her youthful delusions help her to stay relatively sane while facing the loss of both her parents. This is why Terry Gilliam said that the innocence of this film may be shocking to some people. Jeliza-Rose is completely innocent in her response to everything her parents have put her through. Even though she knows some of her parents’ behavior may have negative consequences, she does not understand the ramifications or significance of their actions.
While playing outside with her imaginary friends, Jeliza-Rose meets Dell, a brooding and intimidating hag who lives in a neighboring house. Despite Dell’s menacing demeanor, Jeliza-Rose takes to her new neighbor instantly and considers Dell to be her new best friend. This quickly changes when she meets Dickens, Dell’s twenty-year old, mentally challenged and abused brother whose emotional capacity matches that of Jeliza-Rose. Dickens also views the world with a childlike romanticism very similar to Jeliza-Rose (possibly because he too comes from an abusive and depraved home life). The two bond very quickly with Jeliza-Rose incorporating Dickens’ fantasies into her own. She soon names Dickens her boyfriend with only an innocent understanding of adult relationships.
Possibly the darkest aspect of the film occurs when Dell finds Noah’s body, still rotting in his living room chair. She embalms the corpse so that she can finally have Noah all to herself. Jeliza-Rose watches Dell cut into Noah in order to remove all his decaying innards. This is something Jeliza-Rose is unable to handle by escaping into fantasy. She faints at the sight and sound of Dell’s large knife cutting into her dead father’s torso. After the initial shock of seeing this, Jeliza-Rose resumes talking to and about her father as if he were alive. Dell proclaims that she, Noah, Dickens and Jeliza-Rose are a family now and nothing will ever separate them. This is exactly what Jeliza-Rose wants, a happy home. It does not matter that her new family members are even more deranged than her parents were. Jeliza-Rose, Dell and Dickens are demented characters who live in isolated worlds. Their perceptions are twisted which makes them relatable to each other and helps them to enable each other’s delusions.
The second shock of reality for Jeliza-Rose comes when she sees Dickens from behind, sitting in her father’s living room chair and wearing the wig she put on Noah after he died. She recovers as soon as she sees that the person in the chair is Dickens and not her dead father. This moment shows that Jeliza-Rose is aware that her father is actually dead, which indicates she can distinguish between fantasy and reality. After Jeliza-Rose realizes that Dickens has just come to visit the house, a custom he developed when Jeliza-Rose’s grandmother lived there, she and Dickens play dress up with some old clothes and makeup. Dickens reveals here that Jeliza-Rose’s grandmother had make-out sessions with him when he was a little boy, even using her tongue which he thought may have been a snake. This is a small look at the abuse that must have existed in Jeliza-Rose’s family and effected her father’s development, as well as her own. Dickens reaches in and gives Jeliza-Rose a small kiss on the lips, just enough to smear his lipstick on her. Jeliza-Rose does not like the mess Dickens makes on her face and calls him a “silly kisser.” This moment, perhaps more than any other, is why Terry Gilliam referred to this film as shocking because of its innocence. The thought of a twenty-year old man, even a mentally challenged one, kissing a ten-year old girl is shocking and uncomfortable but it is also very organic to the story. Both
Jeliza-Rose and Dickens are innocent and do not comprehend that it is wrong for them to play together in this way. Jeliza-Rose goes to Dell’s and Dickens’ house where she surprises Dickens, scaring him almost to death. Jeliza-Rose sees Dell’s workshop which contains preserved animals and finds the room containing Dell’s mother’s body. She also finds a shrine Dell made to Noah and realizes they were once in love the way Jeliza-Rose and Dickens are now. Dell sees Dickens and Jeliza-Rose just about to silly kiss and explodes with rage at the perverse behavior of her brother and the little girl. Jeliza- Rose escapes by accidentally kicking in the head of Dell’s dead mother, which forces Dell to see that her mother is actually dead. Both Jeliza-Rose and Dell share an unwillingness to deal with their parents death. Dell has a twisted inability to accept death while Jeliza-Rose may just be too innocent to understand death or even that she helped her father overdose on heroin. Jeliza-Rose runs home to her father’s corpse and looks for him to protect her from Dell, whom she is sure wants to kill her and make a trophy of her.
Later that night, Dickens blows up the train that passes near his house using some dynamite he found which he calls his atom bomb. His intention is to use the dynamite to cleanse the earth and help bring back Baby Jesus. Jeliza-Rose goes to the accident site and searches the wreckage for Dickens. She comes across a female survivor who thinks Jeliza-Rose is also a passenger on the train who has lost her parents. The delusional little girl plays along and lets the woman take care of her. As the two sit next to the wreckage, the fireflies that sometimes accompany Jeliza-Rose appear. The woman also sees the fireflies which indicates that she too is delusional, possibly due to the trauma of the accident she has just survived. Regardless, Jeliza-Rose has encountered another person who shares in the little girl’s fantastical view of her surroundings. Perhaps it is a matter of birds of a feather flocking together or just a simple coincidence but Jeliza-Rose has found another protector who will enable her delusions.
An adult would have great difficulty navigating through the circumstances in which Jeliza-Rose finds herself throughout this story. The delusional little girl, however, through her innocence, survives every situation of this horrible world relatively unscathed. This is why Terry Gilliam suggests that viewers forget everything they’ve learned as an adult because an adult could not survive what poor Jeliza-Rose is forced to endure. Accepting the circumstances of the characters in the world created in this film may not help viewers appreciate what they see but it is a mandatory prerequisite to taking in everything TIDELAND has to offer.