Why Haven’t You Seen It: Terry Gilliam’s Tideland


You know what I love? Escapist stories. Tales like Oz and Wonderland. Stories where children need to escape to lands they created in their own minds to cope with what is going on around (and within) them. I think of my world as very much a twisted version of Oz or Wonderland, inundated with strange props and colorful people that keep me alive and aware of the world around me, though perhaps my version and your version of the world are very different places. And that is the kind of story Tideland is. The story of a little girl who is surrounded by death and loss, and creates a world quite unlike anything you have ever seen to manage all that. But at what point do our fantasies become real life dangers to other people? How deep down the rabbit hole can we go before we lose the ability to ever come back?

Those are the questions Tideland begs of us as viewers, and much like the little girl in the film, we come away from the whole experience changed. I know I say that a lot, but have I failed you yet?

First thing I need to mention here is that this is a Terry Gilliam film. And on top of that, it may be Gilliam’s most polarizing work, to be honest. There seems to be no middle ground here. People are either really affected by Tideland, or they just don’t like it. The people who love it usually watch it multiple times within the first few months of finding it, and the people who hate it won’t make it through the entirety of the (rather long) film. So if you are not a fan of Gilliam, or the surreal in general, I don’t suspect this film will change your mindset about that. I, for one, think he has a directorial eye unlike any other, and Tideland only worked to establish that love for his work even more in me.


Yes. What you think you are seeing is what you are seeing. Intense. I know.

Tideland is about a little girl named Jeliza-Rose, whose Mother dies, and then almost immediately, her Father dies after (played by the ever-awesome Jeff Bridges in what may very well be his shortest role ever), both from drug overdoses, and she is left to fend for herself in Texas. Relax, that is not a spoiler as it happens within the first ten minutes of the film and sets the tone for the entire story. What follows is Jeliza’s descent into an imaginary world built of her own subconscious, where doll heads she wears on her fingertips talk to her and lead her on an increasingly strange journey. It sound fucked up and it is, but in the best ways possible. Not only is it strange, but its grabs at that strange and embraces it, as Terry Gilliam films often do. And much like other films he has made, he has an ability to create whole worlds, and create them convincingly, and Tideland only adds to that track record. It’s Oz on bad acid. Wonderland on strychnine. And you will feel your feet getting rooted to this strange place, much like Jeliza’s.


She is definitely an old soul. A lame expression, for the most part, but seems to fit here.

And this is a Terry Gilliam film, so you know she will encounter many strange and marvelous character. The one that will stand out most to you will be Dickens. I will refrain from telling you anything about the character, but will tell you that he is very much the white rabbit to this Wonderland. But be aware going into this, it is a dark journey, with some going so far as to call it a horror film. While I would not classify it as such, I can understand where some may see it as such. Seeing a little girl help her Dad boot the heroine that kills him is horrifying, in the realest sense of the word. Regardless, this is not horror. This is dark fantasy.


It actually makes me sad how few people appreciate this film.

To attempt to explain Tideland visually wouldn’t work. A big part of the draw for me was the world that was slowly weaving for us as we  watch. This is not the place you would THINK a little girl would dream up It feels too….too broken. But most of us have not been forced to witness the death of our parents, so who is to say what world’s we would weave, or just how dark or light that world would end up being? If all you know is loss and ugliness, wouldn’t that reflect itself in the world you built for yourself? But even then, it is all beautiful, in the same way sad poetry from Poe is beautiful. In the same way a rainy Sunday can be beautiful. There is beauty and strength to be found in sadness and loss. But, like I asked earlier, at what point does the fantasy need to stop and give way to reality? And what point does your imaginary world impede the real world? I will not say more, but asking yourself that as a viewer is a big part of this film. Another big part, and the film’s biggest selling point is it’s lead, a young actress you all have seen many, many times. It is time we finally give this girl the name (and the credit) she deserves.


I hate when adolescent girls have more talent than I ever will.

Her name is Jodelle Ferland, and if you are a fan of horror, chances are you have seen her, many times over. In Silent Hill. In The Tall Man. In Cabin in the Woods. Hell, she even played the “Little Sisters” from Bioshock 2. And this girl is freakishly talented. I remember seeing her in Silent Hill and just being really impressed with her range. She could go from being a scared little girl to being the main antagonist in the film, and she did it without batting an eye. And Tideland is easily her most impressive work, where we see the wounded psyche of a child reflected back to us, over and over, in the eyes (and dolls) of this little girl.

It finally just hit me the perfect way to describe this movie.

It is Gummo meets Alice in Wonderland.

A grim journey of nihilism through a bleak (sometimes oddly beautiful, and always disturbing) universe, where nothing makes sense, and questions never lead to answers. Only more questions. I genuinely recommend that you all watch Tideland, as soon as possible. It is a powerhouse of a movie, by a powerhouse of a director, and it’s the kind of story no one seems brave enough to tell anymore. Fairy tales for fucked up kids, who grew into fucked up adults.

In other words, this film was made for people like me.

Well, people like us.


I can now add “Jeff Bridges flesh hoodie” to my list of must own items.

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  1. I actually HAVE seen this one, as apparently we share a similar affection for Mr. Gilliam. Count me on the side of the fence that thinks it’s a great movie (though not one I’ve returned to, yet). I don’t usually think of Gilliam as an “intimate” director, but this would have to be a huge exception.

    He basically said it’s his most personal movie so far, and it feels that way. While there are certainly plenty of stories that take place in “Wonderlands,” this one more than most seems to admit there’s a dark side to fantasizing. Excellent pick.

  2. Yeah, this is a movie that I recommend everyone see. You are right in that there’s no middle ground for it, but that’s what makes it such essential watching. Personally, I hated it when I saw it the once, but I’ve always felt I should give it another chance. It is a Gilliam movie, so of course it looks beautiful, and I may even go so far as to say this is his most gorgeous LOOKING movie ever. It’s clearly the path this story takes that divides people. To elaborate a bit, even Gilliam himself introduces the movie and essentially defends it before you’ve even started watching.

    Still, good call Remy. Get on it, people.

  3. You guys have all slowly reinvigorated my belief that there still is, and always will be, a core of passionate, creative, intelligent people who like passionate, creative, and intelligent films, and that is a pretty awesome thing to believe in, so thank you all.

  4. i saw this film on netflix late at night, knowing nothing about it. i got sucked in and didn’t stir or even blink for 2 hours. amazing, hypnotic film. i suspect the sequel would be called ‘Jeliza-Rose, Portrait of a Serial Killer’ though.

  5. I just watched this tonight (long meant to watch it, but was afraid it would let me down, as I am a huge fan of Gilliam’s other films). Big mistake. Oh ye of little faith…

    Just blown away by the brilliance of this film. It is now possibly my favorite Gilliam film, and that is saying a great deal. So much genius…the cinematography, acting, narrative structure, and atmosphere were all impeccably handled.

    Tideland plays brilliantly with borders: tragedy/comedy, insanity/coping mechanisms, fantasy/reality, childlike/sexual, innocence/betrayed innocence, and so on and on.

    Visually it is a masterpiece; even those who hate it should be able to admit this. Pause the film at any given moment and you have a perfectly composed and often stunning shot that would work on its own as a piece of art.

    I could go on, but I’ll just leave it at, wow.

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