One of Terry Gilliam's least-seen and least-loved films, the 2005 Tideland is an artistically-minded production highlighted by the director's signature cluttered production design and surreal fantasy sequences. At the same time, and by the filmmaker's own admission, it's also a very disturbing and off-putting piece of work designed to provoke strong reactions, and many viewers will simply hate it. The Blu-ray from Arrow Films has a disappointingly dated video transfer and only recycled bonus features carried over from an old DVD. For Fans Only.
Terry Gilliam, the notorious perfectionist with a reputation for feuding with his producers, had just come out from a knock-down, drag-out fight with the Weinsteins over his last picture, The Brothers Grimm, an unwatchable mess and one of his worst films, if not the worst. Attempting to recover from that debacle, the director decided to bypass the studio system entirely for his next project, an independently financed adaptation of Mitch Cullin's dark fantasy novel Tideland. Produced off the Hollywood grid in rural Canada with just a few sets, a handful of actors, and free reign to do whatever he wanted, the finished product is one of the most focused and consistent movies of Gilliam's late career period, 100% his vision without compromise. It's also likely his most difficult film to watch, and has been decried as a disaster by many critics and even some of his staunchest fans.
The movie opens with the introduction of Noah (Jeff Bridges), a washed-up rocker turned paranoid and irrational druggie, as well as his horrible shrew wife (Jennifer Tilly doing a freakshow impersonation of Courtney Love) and their beatific 9-year-old daughter Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland, the child-in-danger from Silent Hill). The parents, if you could accurately use that term, have no regard for their own lives, much less the little girl's. Having known no other way of life, Jeliza-Rose blithely preps the heroin needles to help daddy go on his "vacations" and massages momma's gnarled feet while listening to her manic verbal tirades. It isn't long before the mother drops dead and Noah, fearing imminent police intervention, hightails it out of town with daughter in tow on a bus ride to grandmother's house.
Located precisely in the middle of nowhere, the ramshackle old building they arrive at is spookily isolated on a vast prairie. (The setting was also utilized for the horror flick The Messengers not long afterward.) Of course, grandma is long since dead. Noah himself checks out soon after arrival, settling down for a vacation from which he won't return. Though she doesn't exactly comprehend the predicament, this leaves young Jeliza-Rose to fend for herself while daddy's corpse decomposes in the living room. Fortunately, she's brought along her four best friends, a set of disembodied doll heads she converses with regularly. Lacking any other form of support, Jeliza-Rose's active fantasy imagination is her only protection from the many adversities she faces, including abandonment, hunger, boredom, and her run-ins with the batshit-crazy lady from a neighboring property (Janet McTeer), whose mentally-impaired teenage brother (Brendan Fletcher) will become the girl's closest living friend, as well as possibly an unintentionally dangerous physical threat.
Tideland is a film with obvious artistic merit that is nonetheless extremely unpleasant to watch. Making the same mistake he did in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam falls into the trap of wallowing in over-the-top filth, ugliness, and despair, hoping that the few shining moments of beauty he extracts will lead to transcendence. He almost gets there, almost entirely by virtue of the fact that Jeliza-Rose is a much more sympathetic character than those in Fear and Loathing. Once Jeff Bridges leaves the scene (which isn't very far into the picture), the rest of the movie is practically a one-girl show for Jodelle Ferland, every scene told from her character's perspective. The young actress (just 10 at the time of filming) delves into dark areas that no one her age should ever be asked to go. Although Jeliza-Rose is never actually physically abused, she's put into many uncomfortable situations, some of her own doing and some not, involving emotional abuse, death, and sexuality, one after another in a constant stream of horrors she doesn't recognize or understand, but the audience certainly does. Ferland delivers a strong performance, but it's one that the material almost cynically demands be described as "brave."
For Gilliam, the film is clearly intended as a dark fairy tale, and he layers in many references to past works of the genre: mirrors, rabbit holes, a journey to grandmother's house, a wardrobe in the attic, etc. The trips through Jeliza-Rose's imagination allow him to indulge in the type of surreal fantasy set-pieces he's famous for, and the movie has many moments of true lyrical genius. But it keeps coming back to one central problem, which is that Gilliam has designed the picture as an affront on the audience's sensibilities without ever making a case for why it's necessary. What is the point of putting this child into such harrowing circumstances? What is the message of the movie – that children are resilient and fantasies help us to escape the unpleasantness of reality? Is that all, and if so, is that really a sufficiently worthy message that couldn't have been reached any other way? In many respects, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (released theatrically in the United States just a few months later) was a far more successful realization of the movie Gilliam wanted to make.
Like most of Terry Gilliam's films, Tideland had something of a cursed history. Although produced on schedule and budget, the movie drew such a divisive reaction from critics and festival audiences that no American studio wanted to touch it. Eventually, the now-defunct independent distributor TH!NKFilm picked it up a full year after its international debut and seriously bungled the release, putting it in just a handful of theaters where it made negligible money. The label then subsequently botched the DVD edition with a cropped aspect ratio the director raised hell about. Despite promising to fix that, no correction was ever issued and TH!NKFilm went out of business a few years later.
In 2007, Tideland turned up on both the Blu-ray and competing HD DVD formats in Germany courtesy of Concorde Video, but the movie never made the transition to high-definition in English-speaking markets until now. After the demise of TH!NKFilm, ownership of the movie wound up with Universal, from which Arrow Video has licensed it for a simultaneous Blu-ray release in both the UK and United States.
The Arrow Blu-ray comes packaged in a clear keepcase with reversible cover art. On one side is the movie's traditional poster art, while the other has a jokey cartoon image of a squirrel with a shark head. Inside the case is a booklet with an essay by film writer Neil Mitchell, who is much more enthusiastic about the movie than I am. From its "Play Movie" option, the disc menu offers a choice of starting the film with or without a video introduction by Terry Gilliam. I recommend skipping the intro. All of the disc contents are virtually identical to the Concorde release from a decade earlier.
Arrow Video frequently performs its own film-to-video transfers for Blu-ray, but the liner notes in the booklet with this disc curtly state that, "The High Definition master was supplied by Universal," almost as if to pass the buck. This is clearly an older master that's been kicking around for a while. I still have the HD DVD from 2007, and picture quality on this disc is unchanged from that one as far as I can tell. To be fair, I was very impressed with the HD DVD when I reviewed it a decade ago. However, looking at it again now, standards have risen considerably since then and it doesn't hold up particularly well. I had a smaller screen at the time, and even accounting for that, I feel that I overrated it.
In its favor, the Blu-ray gets the movie's aspect ratio mostly right. Tideland was shot using the Super 35 film format and was projected in theaters at 2.40:1. Afterward, Terry Gilliam indicated that he felt the framing was a little too tight and requested that the mattes be opened a small amount to about 2.25:1. The DVD distributor TH!NKFilm misinterpreted these instructions and instead released it at a screen-filling 16:9, exposing too much picture on the top and bottom while cropping a lot from the sides. Gilliam was furious. The original Concorde Blu-ray and now this Arrow disc are presented at a measured 2.35:1, which may not be exactly what Gilliam wanted but is a fair reproduction of the theatrical version. (See this article to better understand why there's so much confusion between 2.35:1 and 2.40:1 on home video.) To my eye, the framing looks fine in all but one scene (at around 91 minutes), which is indeed a hair too tight but nothing worth fretting about.
Otherwise, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 image appears to have been a little electronically sharpened, with occasional edge ringing artifacts and noisy grain. Fine object detail is adequate most of the time but never exceptional. Wide shots are often lacking. Black levels in dark scenes are elevated, and the contrast has been boosted at the high end, which leads to a loss of detail in crushed whites during bright daylight scenes, especially those in the prairie fields.
Colors have been extensively digitally manipulated and regularly look oversaturated or artificial. I'm not sure how much of that is the fault of the video transfer and how much should be blamed on the filmmakers.
The Blu-ray doesn't look terrible by any means. Viewers with smaller screens may not notice anything wrong with it, and most of the screenshots I took look better on my computer monitor than they did on my projection screen. Nevertheless, I found it underwhelming and feel confident that the movie could look a lot better with a fresh film scan. Unfortunately, that seems pretty unlikely to happen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack makes creative use of the surround channels in subtle ways. The sound of flies buzzing around the house was convincing enough that I instinctively swatted the air around my head to shoo them away. (I swear, it sounded like one zipped by just inches from my ear.) For the majority of the movie, the rear channels are subdued and don't draw much attention to themselves. The fantasy sequences are decidedly more aggressive and immersive. This seems appropriate.
The Jeliza-Rose character speaks in a number of weird, affected accents, and Jeff Bridges mumbles almost all of his dialogue. Intelligibility is nevertheless fine. I have no significant complaints about the fidelity of the track, but nor did it ever wow me. The few bassy moments are loud but don't dig very deep into the low-end. In all, it's a solid, satisfying presentation.
All of the bonus features on the disc are recycled from the old TH!NKFilm DVD and/or the German Blu-ray. Arrow has not created any new or original content.
When I last reviewed Tideland, I wrote: "I recognize the artistry in the film, even if I don't have a compelling desire to watch it again right away." Well, it's been a decade, and I like it less with a second viewing. Even for as much benefit-of-the-doubt as I try to give the movie, it's a very grotesque, unpleasant thing to watch. I can understand why many viewers develop a strong and almost instantaneous adverse reaction to it. I can also understand why others have found it emotionally affecting, but personally I'm just not sure what the point of this story is or why there was ever a need for it.
This isn't the type of movie one recommends as a blind purchase. For Terry Gilliam fans who've already seen the film or feel sufficiently prepared for it, the Blu-ray has adequate if dated picture quality, pretty good sound, and a handful of decent bonus features.