Terry Gilliam so rarely gets the chance to make a movie that when he makes a bad one, it's doubly disappointing. But if he's going to fail, better that he fail with a darkly ambitious beast like Tideland than a pervasively plain adventure muddle like The Brothers Grimm. Words like "bad" and "failure" don't really suit when it comes to Tideland. The movie is brave, strong, deeply felt, and frequently brilliant, and it does exactly what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do is distressingly unpleasant.
Jodelle Ferland plays a pre-teen girl who's the only responsible member of a family of junkies. After a series of tragedies, she winds up living alone in an abandoned house in the middle of a Wyeth-worthy field, where her only company is her collection of severed doll-heads and her childlike, brain-damaged adult neighbor Brendan Fletcher. Gilliam—working from Tony Grisoni's adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel—perverts multiple fairy-tale plots, creating a world where the awfulness of drug addiction, abandonment, and sexual abuse shades into the realm of "beware the witch in the woods" fantasy stories.
In any other hands, this story and script might've been completely unbearable, one of those indie gothics where human behavior has been rendered completely unrecognizable. It's unrecognizable in Tideland too, but at least Gilliam doesn't try to make his freaks adorable, or stubbornly noble. This is a full-on gallery of grotesques, engaged in behavior that ranges from merely odd to completely disgusting. The movie examines how a child's inner world gets corrupted by her squalid outer world, and Gilliam doesn't spare the squalor. Aside from the hauntingly beautiful final scene, and a moment in the middle of the film where the wheat field becomes an ocean, nearly every flight of fancy in Tideland is turbulent, jangled, and frankly horrifying.
There's something to be said for being uncompromising, and there's even an admirable purity to the Tideland scenes where man-child Fletcher focuses his hard-to-understand sexual desires on Ferland, the only girl he knows. But one dissonant note after another makes their individual force harder to discern. Tideland doesn't have a range of emotion to explore. It's no "trip through the dark to appreciate the light." It's a nightmare from start to finish.