Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits ends with the camera slowly rising away from the shocked young Kevin who, having just survived an encounter with Evil incarnate (David Warner), returns home a second too late to stop his parents from touching the last remaining fragment of Evil and disappearing in a puff of smoke. A brilliant twist on the usual formula of a child’s return from fantastic adventures to find everything exactly the same as when they left, it comes across as a parting joke, but always left me gobsmacked. Gilliam’s latest, Tideland, could be said to be a feature-length expansion of that final moment.
It starts with young Jeliza-Rose and her junkie father fleeing the city, where her drug-addled mother has just died, for her grandmother’s country farmhouse. The farmhouse proves to be semi-derelict and unoccupied. Jeliza-Rose’s father settles down in an armchair and administers himself a fix from which he doesn’t wake up. Suddenly, Jeliza-Rose is alone and parentless in a totally strange world. Most of the rest of film follows her imaginative ramblings as she plays with (and provides the voices for) the dolls’ heads that are her only toys. Apart from the occasional flight of cinematic fantasy where Jeliza-Rose’s imaginings take over, I found the rest of the film oddly unsatisfying. It just wasn’t saying anything, and in fact seemed to be deliberately avoiding trying to confront the emotional effect of Jeliza-Rose’s sudden dislocation. I suppose it could be said that, in this, the film was echoing its young heroine’s inability to face her own deeper distress, but, for my mind, it needed some growing, undermining sense of the encroaching darkness that must surely accompany such a crisis. I like Terry Gilliam, and would love to like him more, but for me his almost medieval love of the grotesque and superficially marvellous often comes at the expense of a deeper emotional connection with his characters — something that works brilliantly in a film like Brazil, which is all about human feeling being crushed by a dark, dystopian future. Perhaps it’s just that, in Tideland, Jeliza-Rose’s reaction to her parents’ death can’t come through in the paradisiacal surroundings of her grandmother’s farm, and it’s only at the end, when we see her wandering through the wreckage of a train crash, that her retreat into her own imaginative world makes sense. She wasn’t involved in the train crash, but is certainly as shellshocked and traumatised as any of its survivors.