I liked enough things about Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose that I want to give the film higher marks than it deserves — but its flaws run too deep to ignore.
The movie starts out as an unusually insightful deconstruction of a bogus Garden of Eden relationship between a father and daughter who live at a disused commune on an island “off the East Coast of the United States.” Toward the end, the film comes to an equally insightful rethinking of its own deconstruction. But it’s badly battered by a middle section that’s full of silly symbolism and plotting that sometimes doesn’t make sense.
When it’s on its game, however, Miller’s movie has moments of poignant beauty that are more sublime than anything released thus far in 2005. As filmmaking, this is so far ahead of Miller’s Personal Velocity that it’s hard to believe the two films were made by the same person.
As writing, however, there’s a much more noticeable connection between the two films — and that’s not a good thing. Miller’s tendency to sacrifice carefully established mood to clunkily contrived narrative lurks around nearly every corner. This approach would be less destructive if her narrative lurches ever went anywhere other than the expected route, but they don’t. By the end of Jack and Rose, the film’s story has traversed exactly the ground you expected it to, and what you’re left with is a brilliantly developed premise, some outstanding characterizations and a sizable chunk of narrative that, in the most charitable assessment, needed work.
Miller’s real-life husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, plays Jack Slavin, the last holdout of a failed ’60s commune, who continues to live in “off the grid” isolation. (His one concession to the civilized world is the telephone, which seems to exist more for the convenience of the story than anything else.) With him is his teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle, Secret of the Andes), whose entire world is wrapped up in her father. He’s the only person she sees, outside of plant-delivery man Gray (Jason Lee in an unusually subdued performance).
There are two problems with this arrangement, the most immediate of which is Jack’s health. He has a heart condition and is uncertain how much longer he will be able to exist with only Rose’s help — and how much longer he will live, period. The second and even deeper problem, which is not directly addressed until late in the film, is that in their isolation, their relationship verges on the incestuous. (They seem a lot like a father-daughter variant on the brother-sister duo, William and Dorothy Wordsworth.) When we first see them, in fact, it would be easy to mistake them for a couple, rather than a father and daughter.
In an ill-conceived effort to make things right, Jack imports his occasional girlfriend, Kathleen (Catherine Keener, Lovely and Amazing), and her sons, Thaddius (Paul Dano, The Girl Next Door) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald, Halloween: Resurrection), from the mainland by way of what he calls “an experiment.” (Jack convinces Kathleen to agree to the experimental living arrangement with the aid of his checkbook — the same way he facilitates many things in the film, thanks to a large inheritance.)
Not surprisingly, Rose is less than happy with this intrusion into her world and is thrust into a confused state of sexual jealousy over Kathleen — to the point where she tries to seduce the reticent and possibly gay Rodney, who instead cuts and styles her hair, since he’s training to be a hairdresser.
All this works well enough — and then the plot kicks in. Parts of the story, such as Rose’s ultimate deflowering and Jack’s reaction to it, still work perfectly. But parts just don’t, such as the introduction of a snake (courtesy of Rose) into this Garden of Eden, a head-slappingly obvious move made just that much worse by a laughable shot of the reptile slithering into a hole in the wall while Rose loses her virginity.
Even some scenes that do work, such as Rose’s recreation of the commune’s “acid pad,” get short-circuited when the film takes a plot turn toward melodrama. The turn is bafflingly pointless, since it’s clearly a device to get Kathleen and the boys off the island — but then the film reverses course and she’s staying, only to have Jack use his checkbook to coerce her into leaving.
That all this finally rights itself in the film’s final scenes never quite makes up for these lapses. And even there, we’re confronted with Miller trying just a little too hard (putting Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” on the soundtrack toward the end goes beyond foreshadowing into telegraphing).
However, this is still a rich and often rewarding movie that dares to make itself a little uncomfortable, and not just because of its undercurrent of sexual taboos, but also in the point it ultimately makes about the difference between Jack and a much-hated land developer (Beau Bridges). It’s about two-thirds a great movie and worth it for those two-thirds. And I wouldn’t wait too long to see it, because there’s a good chance it will be gone by Friday. Rated R for language, sexual content and some drug material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke