The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Reviewed by James Slone
Some films are content to be slight and mysterious. There are politics and strong emotions to be found on the surface of The Ballad of Jack and Rose, but in a film like this the small subtle mysteries are its greatest treasures. Its weakest parts are the ones that try too hard to be about something, and tend towards melodramatic chaos. But even when the film goes for political melodrama, it packs a lot of weight. Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller, The Ballad of Jack and Rose tells the story of isolated, suffocating love brought into sudden contact with outside forces that it simply cannot survive. It’s also about collapse of the simple pastoral life in the face of urban sprawl. The two ideas are intimately linked in the story.
Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) live on a small island off the coast of New England in what remains of a commune built in the 1960s by Jack and others who have since moved on. The commune, comprised of idealistic scientists, artists, and hippies, was established as an experiment in sustainable living and harmonious communion with the earth. Like most communes it failed, but Jack decided to stay. Estranged from his wife, Jack has raised his daughter since she was 11, determined to keep her from outside contamination. Rose was raised to appreciate the life of pre-industrial agrarian living, which involves flowers, heather, swimming nude, and a lot of Dylan.
When the movie opens she’s in her teens, still unsoiled by modernity in Jack’s estimation, but awakening sexually. Aware that her wandering sexuality might have taken on an obsessive, perhaps even incestuous character in the absence of anyone else, Jack decides that Rose needs to be around other people, outsiders. Meanwhile, a developer (Beau Bridges) has begun work on constructing a master-planned community on the island. Jack, desperate to hold on to what’s left of the sixties, carries out a low-intensity struggle against the developers while inviting others to join him on the commune. It also turns out that Jack is dying and needs a nurse and a caretaker for his daughter.
Enter Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two boys, Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thaddius (Paul Dano). Jack and Kathleen have been involved on the mainland, a secret that Rose is unaware of until the moment of her arrival. Her sons, from two different marriages, are night and day. Rodney is a warmhearted hairdresser, sarcastic and acerbic, but also empathic and genuinely nice. Thaddius, the younger of the two, is cold and calculating, and uses coercion and force to get what he wants in the absence of looks or personality. Others come and go from the mainland, Thaddius’s girlfriend Red Berry (Jena Malone) and a flower salesman (Jason Lee).
Rose, who has only experienced the temperament of her father, suddenly finds herself surrounded by teenage male sexuality and confronted with the notion that she isn’t the only apple in her father’s eyes. Naturally things go south quick. Rose avenges her father’s seeming transgression by having Rodney chop off her long hair, threatening Kathleen with a shotgun and most horrifically for Jack, making immediate plans for losing her virginity to one of the boys. When one is too old and wise to jump in bed with her, she goes for the dumber, more dangerous one. Meanwhile, development encroaches.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose has a slow, ambling gait, written and acted naturalistically. For most of its duration it retains a very natural organic rhythm, and except for the intrusions of unnecessary folk tunes of the 1960s, strongly conveys the beauty of unspoiled hills and forests. Ellen Kuras’ sumptuous cinematography brings the film’s setting to life, a wide panorama of grey and green scenery, the ocean and the wind through the flowers and grass creating contrasting tides of color. When Jack and Rose are alone on the island they seem to be a part of the world rather than the foreground. Except for those intimate moments in the dark recesses of their cabin.
Day-Lewis and Belle perform their parts with a quiet, tender intimacy. It feels as though they’ve known each other forever and understand each other perfectly. Of course they don’t, and that’s one of the fascinations of the film. Jack has selfishly kept his daughter in isolation, all in her best interest of course, and when the intimacy breaks it’s clear that Rose has been denied the social bonds that Jack has secretly kept for himself. He has tried to preserve in his daughter the values he was unable to hold on to. Of course, his need for his daughter to live in such away is as much a result of his pathology as his idealism. He decides, nearly too late and only in the presence of death, that she needs to be exposed to the outside world.
When Rose rebels and wages her personal war with Kathleen, Jack quickly regrets having invited guests to his island. Rose is feral and unbridled with the mores of life outside, and so her rebellion is violent and potentially dangerous. When she loses her virginity and throws it in Jack’s face, his response is to panic and lash out against her and Thaddius. It turns out that the outside world has found Rose despite his best efforts to keep it at bay. An adjustment that might have at one point been easy becomes painfully difficult. As the situation deteriorates, Jack’s illness becomes unmanageable, and he’s forced to make some hard decisions regarding Rose’s future, ones that do not necessarily fit neatly with his ideology.
Incestuous feelings informs much of the film’s tone. While never expressed at the level of “Dreamers,” it’s clear that too much closeness for too long has created a sexual element in Jack and Rose’s relationship, one that never quite becomes physical, but dangerous because it pushes Rose to obsessive extremes. The sexual element works because it allows the film to explore the theme of suffocating closeness in a visceral, material way. Jack and Rose are romantically involved, even if it’s not entertained physically. The camera is in love with Day-Lewis’s and Belle’s faces, his haggard and punctuated with two intense eyes, hers round with baby fat and serenely soft. Most movies about traditional boy meets girl relationships aren’t shot this sensually.
The film’s only weakness, and unfortunately it’s a distracting one, is the presence of the outsiders. They’re necessary for the story to work, but the director gets a little too enthusiastic with Rose’s war against them and chaotic scenes ensue where the coherence of the story breaks down. Jack’s conversations with the developer are interesting politically, but too ramped up. The best scenes are those with Jack and Rose alone, and despite the creepiness that accompanies some of them, they best express what is beautiful about a natural existence. It’s a shame about the development.