Lordy, does Terry Gilliam want to shock us in "Tideland."
Look at those reasons for the film's R rating -- the MPAA review board must have watched the movie wearing hazmat suits -- and know that this modern-day "Alice in Wonderland" treats us to the sight of a sweet - faced little girl shooting her father up with heroin followed by the drug overdose of her vile, foulmouthed mother. And that's in the first 10 minutes, before the movie really goes down the rabbit hole. It's safe to assume you'll never think about taxidermy the same way.
The girl, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland ), lives mostly in her imagination, as you might too if your parents were a pair of washed-up junkie rock stars. Mama (Jennifer Tilly , doing Courtney Love with the volume set at 11) doesn't stick around long, and father Noah (Jeff Bridges) doesn't want to answer legal questions, so he whisks Jeliza-Rose away to his late mother's house on the wide prairies.
The place is a deserted shack, more so after daddy takes another medicinal vacation and never wakes up. This doesn't faze the girl, even when the flies come around: She has her collection of doll heads to converse with, and there are friendly neighbors in the form of the mentally damaged young Dickens (Brendan Fletcher ) and his black-clad taxidermist sister, Dell (Janet McTeer ). This somehow leads to discomfiting sexuality from the young heroine, a major transportation disaster, and the sight of Noah's body gutted and tanned. "He looks like a burrito," says Jeliza-Rose with fresh wonderment.
Well, all right, transgression has its place in movies and in the culture, and sometimes you have to push past the borders of propriety to see the world with any real clarity. The problem with "Tideland," though, is not bad images but bad filmmaking. Gilliam ("Brazil," "12 Monkeys") has made a career out of never throwing away a single idea, and here he finally gives in to total self-indulgence, giggling with bad-boy glee all the while.
The results are dull, of all things. The movie itself feels like an overstuffed burrito: Nicola Pecorini's cinematography has verve but no visual sense, and the film's self-important pace turns deadening over the long haul. The best thing here is Ferland's performance -- the 10-year-old actress is able to play knowing and naÃ¯ve, nice and nasty. She's an Alice that Lewis Carroll might have admired, for good reasons and for creepy ones.
The message of "Tideland," once you get past the clutter and willful tastelessness, is so trite as to be nearly insulting: A child's imagination is an all-powerful shield against the world's real monsters. It's not, actually, but there aren't real monsters or real people here -- just the cartoons in Gilliam's head and his love of doodling until he covers every inch of space.
Art isn't about filling the cup until it overflows, although that can have its own rewards. Art is about knowing to say when. In "Tideland," Gilliam seems terrified by the very idea.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.