THE BALLAD OF JACK & ROSER
Like a 1986 variation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Jack Slavin (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) live in deliberate semi-isolation from the rest of the world. Their home is an island at the site of an old hippie commune off the coast of Maine. They are much closer than most fathers and daughters. Indeed, we discover them casually napping in each other's arms. Jack, however, perhaps fearing incest, is about to alter the nature of their pastoral paradise by inviting his mainland lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and her two sons-Thaddius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald)-to join the household. Rose immediately feels betrayed. Up to this point she has been the only woman in her father's life, and she is not about to share her magically sheltered existence with a strange woman and her brood.
With an angelic countenance that sweetly conceals white-hot anger, Rose begins to sabotage Jack's neatly planned arrangement, just as Jack is violently sabotaging the housing-development scheme of Marty Rance (the excellent Beau Bridges). The one false note in the film comes when Jack fires a shotgun at a construction crew, causing them to temporarily withdraw. Even in rural areas that would have provoked immediate police reprisal. Here, for no good reason, it is ignored.
The bulk of writer-director Rebecca (Personal Velocity) Miller's script for The Ballad of Jack & Rose is a pungent mixture of lyrical beauty and blunt reality, beautifully captured by DP Ellen Kuras, a major talent, in Super-16mm. One indication of the quality of Miller's writing is that every single character holds our interest. When Kathleen and her boys depart, we are impatient for their return. Once we have visited Marty Rance's house, we want to linger.
The Ballad of Jack & Rose works on many levels. It is a truthful evocation of the last of the hippies; a profound look at the love between a troubled father and daughter; a blunt evocation of teenage angst where the youngsters' IQs begin where the Olsen twins' and Brittany Spears' end; a study of the interminable conflict between developers and environmentalists; and a lesson that calamitous conclusions often follow idealistic beginnings.
Day-Lewis, Miller's husband in real life, gives a no-holds-barred performance that imbues the film with much of its power. Belle has been perfectly cast; it is difficult to think of another actress who offers her unique combination of innocence and sensuality, naivety and intelligence. While Keener has proven in films past that she can capture the very essence of modern independent women, here she shines as a somewhat wounded adult willingly dependent on her man, and bitter only that he will not share her commitment. Dano is intensely on target as Kathleen's callow son, whose sullen rapaciousness turns on him with a vengeance. And finally, McDonald, as the more sensitive child, steals his every scene with helpless mien and lethal wit. It is a breakthrough performance full of much-needed comic relief.
This provocative film is not only a telling portrait of America that would have made Rebecca Miller's father, playwright Arthur Miller, proud, it is the harbinger of great films to come from an exceptional screenwriter and director.