Daniel Day-Lewis is an eccentric, gifted actor. He disappeared from movies and acting for five years, then reappeared in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. He has now finished work on a much smaller project for a much less well known director, Rebecca Miller. As always, he steals the show — you might even say his talent is too big for this role — although he has some stiff competition from his young co-star.
R for language, sexual content, drug use
Jack lives with his daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) on an island that used to be a commune back in the early seventies. The house is set into a hill and covered with sod. They generate electricity with two big turbines. They don’t seem to live entirely off the land, but that would doubtless be their ideal if they could manage.
Rose’s mother is out of the picture, so it’s just the two of them. But Jack is sick. He has a heart condition, and Rose doesn’t know how to live without him. (Actress Belle was probably 17 or 18 when filming. Her character is probably 14 or 15, still emotionally young.) She says that when Jack “leaves” she’s going to join him. Rather than allow that to happen, Jack heads to the mainland to secure a mother for Rose.
He hooks up with his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and asks her to move to the island with him. Almost as quickly as he asks, she accepts, and soon she and her two teenaged sons are there. Rose knew her dad would bring visitors, but she didn’t expect them to arrive with a U-haul trailer, or to be outnumbered.
The interactions are casual and realistic as the two families get to know each other. It’s refreshing not to see any artificial conflict introduced for the sake of the plot. Two families merging with nothing but the best of intentions is plenty of conflict already. Adding to the tension are Rose’s jealous ownership of her father’s affections and Kathleen’s two boys’ sense of boredom and isolation on the island.
The two boys could easily have been stereotyped, but they don’t seem two-dimensional. Although you can easily tell what cliques they belong to — one is a nerd, the default clique for fat boys, the other is a headbanger — they both behave like regular, real teenagers, and not “types,” even if high school culture forces types onto them.
Tensions do flare, but most of the conflict happens inside of Rose. She acts out in inexplicable ways. She is an animal, like we all are, only maybe she’s more in touch with her inner animal, having been raised by a former hippie. Her jealousy of her father’s now-divided attentions and her need for revenge against him let her discover the emotional tools she has. Miller reveals these teenage machinations expertly.
Good Script, Bad Script
The observations of Rose’s character make this movie good. Writer/director Miller (Personal Velocity) is very good at realistic portraiture and conflict. Her broader composition, however, leaves something to be desired. Jack’s interaction with his neighbors, white collar villains who are developing the land, give the movie a shallow, heavyhanded, political message that seems to come too much from Miller and not enough from Jack. As well drawn as they are, none of Miller’s characters are particularly likeable. That doesn’t change the quality of the film, but it makes it more forgettable and harder to recommend.
Miller also flubs the ending. After setting up what seems like the natural place to end, and even leading us to within inches of that place, Miller then cuts ahead to a completely different movie in a parallel universe. It feels exactly like a studio tinkering with an ending after a bad test audience reaction. The obviously small budget on The Ballad of Jack and Rose makes studio intervention seem unlikely, but that feeling unquestionably remains.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose ends up a mixed bag. The movie’s few flaws do a lot of damage to an otherwise skillfully crafted film.