A hugely talented but socially isolated computer operator is tasked by Management to prove the Zero Theorem: that the universe ends as nothing, rendering life meaningless. But meaning is what he already craves.
Pre-teen Jeliza-Rose's parents are hopeless drug addicts. When pa, rocker Noah, finds ma's OD'd, he fears to be charged with homicide and takes Jeliza along to his ma's place, in a desolate country region. With Noah passed out, the girl mentally transfers to a fantasy world she and her doll heads enter magically. Jeliza's adventures also star the crazy locals, notably Dell, and Dell's grown but intellectually disabled brother Dickens.Written by
I was very intrigued by the range of opinions about this film, and I'm kind of agnostic about Gilliam at the best of times so could have gone either way. In the event, it seems to me like a very personal, smallscale and risky film - the kind of thing major directors don't do often enough.
Gilliam introduced the screening I attended by saying that plenty of the (invited) audience would hate the film. He also said that its subject is the resilience of children, in a world where we're encouraged to treat them as helpless victims most of the time.
I was pretty much enthralled from the opening scene. Jeff Bridges plays a character who's like the dark side of the Dude. A semicoherent junkie who's trained his daughter to cook up his heroin shots for him, he'd be the world's worst parent figure if it wasn't for the mother, a grotesque Courtney caricature who seems to me to be the only person in the film Gilliam's unable to summon up any liking for.
Events lead us into the wheatfields of the midwest and the story takes off into completely unforeseeable territory. There are countless reference points touched on over the next hour or so, in a very playful way - everything from Dorothy's farmhouse and her encounters with witches and brainless tin men, to the dinner table scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Psycho, to Jan Svankmeyer and The Bride of Frankenstein, and in what's either a major theft or a loving homage, one of the plot points of The Butcher Boy becomes a central event here.
The storyline takes detours into whimsy and the massively grotesque - there are two scenes here that will stay with me for weeks, one featuring a sex act in a taxidermist's workshop, the other best left undescribed - but there seems to me to be a central interest in the way that kids keep themselves sane through the most extreme circumstances, through imagination and play, and through projecting their fears onto made-up characters, that really shows an understanding of the way children's minds work.
The main character, the kid, is tremendously convincing, funny and - in the end - heartbreaking. I think this film might just stand with classics like Voice of the Beehive and Bernard Rose's totally underrated Paperhouse as one of the great films about solitary children and their imaginations, and their ability to rise above their fears.
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