The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Rebecca Miller’s film The Ballad of Jack and Rose stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller’s real-life husband, as Jack Slavin, an aging hippie who constitutes half the population of a dying 1960s commune (it’s now 1986) on an island off the Atlantic coast. The other half of the population is Jack’s teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle); they spend their days tending their vegetable and flower gardens, working on Rose’s home-schooling lessons and fretting over the encroachments of a local land developer (Beau Bridges).
We suspect from the beginning that Jack and Rose are closer than a father and daughter ought to be. Jack has a heart condition and expects it to give out on him at almost any moment, and Rose is disconsolate at the thought. “If you die, I’ll die,” she tells him. “If you die,” he replies, “there’ll be no point in my having lived.”
Sensing that it’s time—past time, really—to expand Rose’s world beyond himself and the haunted memories of their bygone community, Jack invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her sons Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thaddius (Paul Dano) to move in with him and Rose. Rose—who had no inkling even of Kathleen’s existence—doesn’t handle it well, barging into Jack’s room the first night while he and Kathleen are asleep and firing a shotgun into the wall beside the bed.
Kathleen declines to take the hint. She doesn’t even take offense the next morning, when she ever so gently suggests that Rose might benefit from a little professional therapy, to which Jack—proving once and for all his perception and sensitivity—responds, “Shut yer bloody mouth. There’s nothin’ wrong wi’ Rose!”
You might think even a woman with what Rodney calls “Mom’s savior complex” would pack up the Ford Pinto and head back to civilization as fast as its four puny cylinders could crank. But Kathleen stays, determined to stand by her man and make friends with Rose. Most of all, though, she stays because Rebecca Miller isn’t through with her yet.
Miller is the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, and she seems to have inherited her father’s penchant for overstatement and conspicuous symbolism. Early in the film, while Jack is away arranging Kathleen’s move and the unsuspecting Rose is alone, a sudden storm rolls through the commune, blowing down Rose’s cozy little treehouse retreat. And just in case we might have failed to notice that the girl is in a raging hormonal turmoil, Miller treats us to a shot of her juxtaposed with a time-lapse image of a birch tree literally oozing sap.
Later, Rose smuggles a poisonous copperhead into the house, and, while she is losing her virginity to the clumsy Thaddius, the snake escapes from its cage and makes a beeline for Jack and Kathleen’s room. We’ve been given an industrial-strength dose of Garden of Eden allegory, make no mistake—but who are Adam and Eve supposed to be, and what exactly is the forbidden fruit?
The film’s characters serve their schematic functions in Miller’s story and never stray outside them; after Kathleen and her sons (and a visitor flitting through played by Jena Malone) have served their purpose, they’re simply hustled offstage and never seen again. At the same time, Miller makes puzzling little lapses that undercut a sense of reality. For example, Jack is a Scotsman with a thick accent, but Rose, who has known almost no one else all her life, has none of his distinctive speech rhythms; she talks like a Los Angeles mallrat.
Spotting symbols has its rewards, but what pulls The Ballad of Jack and Rose to life almost despite itself is the same thing that made Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York worth watching: Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. In his hands, Jack is a virile presence too vivid for symbolism, shining like a guttering torch as his health declines and he feels the urgency of preparing Rose for life without him. Rebecca Miller may have a pedant’s tendency to underline the significance of every little detail of her script, but at least with this one vigorous character her instincts serve her, and us, quite well.