Standing lonely amid a field of sun-drenched wheat, the battered clapboard house at the center of Terry Gilliam's "Tideland" is equally evocative of the pastoral mystery of an Andrew Wyeth painting and the looming menace of "Psycho." The disparity is fitting, because as "Tideland" unfolds, it's difficult to tell if you're watching a fantasy or a horror movie, or one superimposed on the other.
The dutiful daughter of a has-been rock star (Jeff Bridges) whose periodic "vacations" consist of shooting up and nodding off, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) prepares her daddy's fix as if she were making a tuna on rye. Although Gilliam and co-screenwriter Tony Grisoni have jettisoned the first-person framework of Mitch Cullin's novel, "Tideland" is still seen through a child's eyes. But like Lewis Carroll, to whom "Tideland" explicitly tips its hat, Gilliam believes children understand much more than adults think they do, if not always in ways grown-up minds can fathom.
The youngest of "Tideland's" characters, 10-year-old Jeliza-Rose is also the most clearheaded. When her junkie mother (a spasmodic Jennifer Tilly) fatally overdoses, Dad suggests a Viking funeral, complete with flaming pyre, but she bats out the flames as he tries to set fire to the bedsheets. Still, she can't prevent him from retreating to the safety of his late mother's abandoned house, or chasing methadone pills with peach Schnapps, which sends him on a vacation from which he never returns.
On her own, Jeliza-Rose rapidly fabricates a fantasy world in which the squirrels in the rafters mutter half-heard sentences and the stench of her father's decaying corpse is merely a bout of uncontrollable flatulence. Dressing up Dad's slumbering body with lipstick rouge and a blond wig, Jeliza-Rose keeps company with a quartet of severed doll's heads until she discovers a pair of deeply eccentric neighbors: Dell (Janet McTeer), a one-eyed taxidermist with a morbid fear of bees, and Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), an epileptic simpleton convinced that the wheat fields are water patrolled by a terrible "monster shark."
This concatenation of grotesqueries is, as Alice might say, much of a muchness, exacerbated by Nicola Pecorini's swooping wide-angle shots, which have the effect of pressing the audience's nose against the glass when they might rather retreat to a safe distance.
Even Gilliam's harrowing "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" pulled over for a few rest stops, but "Tideland's" unmodulated frenzy has the effect of a prolonged shriek, too high and shrill for individual words to make themselves heard. (A second viewing reveals subtle facets under the movie's abrasive surface, but it's hard to imagine many people returning for one.)
"Tideland's" most deliberate provocation is the developing relationship between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens, a meeting of minds between child and man-child that acquires shades of romance and threatens to turn physical. Gilliam isn't so clumsy as to literalize the threat, and he makes clear that Dickens is merely doing as he's been done to. But he's pressing the audience's buttons with a sledgehammer, using imminent peril to make a distant point about the difference between childhood fears and adult ones. Some horrors stay horrors, no matter whose eyes they're seen through.
Although encumbered by requisite tics, Ferland and Fletcher manage heroically nuanced performances, and the movie's ending is such a glorious act of bruised catharsis it almost redeems what's gone before. But by then, the movie's arbitrary oddity has worked your senses into numbness. The curiouser it gets, the less curious you are.
MPAA rating: R for bizarre and disturbing content, including drug use, sexuality and gruesome situations -- all involving a child, and for some language.
A ThinkFilm release. Director Terry Gilliam. Screenplay Tony Grisoni, Gilliam. Based on the novel by Mitch Cullin. Producers Jeremy Thomas, Gabriella Martinelli. Director of photography Nicola Pecorini. Editor Lesley Walker. Running time: 2 hours.
Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.