Can it be that Terry Gilliam has found his edge? Over the years, his post-Python flights of fancy in the cinema have had their devoted admirers; for me, they never achieved take-off. The flabby surrealism and frictionless whimsy again reasserted themselves in his recent movie about the Brothers Grimm: a very drawn-out piece of predictable wackiness.

This, however, is something else: darker, more scabrous, more unpleasant - and more interesting. It is the movie for which Gilliam reportedly abandoned Brothers Grimm, temporarily, in mid-production. That troubled project was evidently put on hold while the director tackled this one. The resulting picture, for all its faults, is a more rewarding and less ingratiating piece of work.

Tideland is an adaptation of a cult novel by American author Mitch Cullin, first published in 2000. It's a southern gothic nightmare about a little girl called Jeliza-Rose, left to her own devices by her has-been rock-star dad and raddled rock-chick mom - played here by Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly. They are both heroin addicts, though the mom is desperately trying to displace her heroin need into a frenzied consumption of chocolate and methadone. It is Jeliza-Rose's duty to cook up her father's drug intake in a spoon, watch sadly while he injects himself, and then remove the hypodermic as he slumps into an armchair. It's what he calls "going on vacation".

The neglected little mite finds herself being taken to her grandma's ruined farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield in the deep south - an isolated building that looks very much as if Gilliam has had it built especially for the film, and is all the more disturbing for that. Here she is left alone, with nothing for company but her overheated imagination (stimulated by reading Alice in Wonderland) and her four dolls' heads, each of which has a name and ventriloquised voice.

I feared the worst. As the lights dimmed, and the movie began, it seemed a racing certainty that Gilliam would dramatise Jeliza-Rose's escapist fantasy world with loads of CGI-Münchausen caricatures, whose florid freakiness would fail to mask something essentially sentimental.

But no. Everything is pitched mostly on a realist level, with fantasy scenes kept to a bare minimum and all the more effective for that. There are wacky characters living in the neighbouring farmhouse over the hill, but they actually exist, and the nightmare they usher into Jeliza-Rose's life actually exists as well.

Eleven-year-old Jodelle Ferland's performance as Jeliza-Rose is disquietingly pert and mad, like a squeaky little Blanche DuBois. She is every inch her crazy mother's daughter, and looks the dead spit of Tilly. She is no sweet Alice: she looks more like an American poppet version of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. There is a fair bit of caricature-acting going on, and Ferland has a very fruity suh-thuhn ack-say-euhnt.

The same goes for Janet McTeer and Brendan Fletcher as the creepy brother and sister who live nearby: a crazy woman called Dell who will not venture outside without a gauze-mask for fear of bee stings, and an unhappy innocent boy who suffers from epilepsy and has a mock submarine-scanner in his underground treehouse. (His name is Dickens, incidentally, a slightly unsubtle nudge.) Gilliam's vision for the movie suffers at just one point: the graffiti on the walls of the ruined farmhouse looks very quaint.

But Tideland keeps its grip - and makes it tighter, when it becomes clear that the movie's inspiration is not just Lewis Carroll, but something darker. The director himself has called it a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Psycho; the movie's left turn into black-comic horror is, however, triggered not merely by the great taxidermy-enthusiast Norman Bates, but by Hannibal Lecter and the real-life monster who inspired both: notorious serial killer Ed Gein, although murder, as such, is not on the agenda. A nascent and transgressive sexual relationship between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens adds to the unwholesome fascination.

There is one more point of reference: the film is also surely a variation on the visual theme in Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting Christina's World, with its ambiguously ecstatic dream vision of a young woman, prostrate in a field outside a farmhouse: immobile, yearning, frustrated, even ambiguously languorous.

Gilliam permits himself one little in-joke. Among the collection of vinyl albums belonging to Jeliza-Rose's smackhead dad, there's a copy of Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album. Tideland, with its gleeful nastiness, recovers a little of the spirit of the earlier TV genius. And there's a macabre and very funny moment when someone puts their foot through a dead old lady's head, and you can't help remembering the glory days of that descending Bronzino cherub-foot. For the first time in ages, Terry Gilliam has shown he can deliver the snakebite.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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