Words fail me in describing The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the third film written and directed by Rebecca Miller. The recipient of several bad reviews both here in Seattle and across the nation, this movie is actually a ravishing tour de force, the first piece of cinema in 2005 that ascends to such dizzying, vertiginous heights of greatness that I walked out of the theatre, to use Pauline Kael’s word, “reeling.”
This elation of the senses had less to do with mood than with a purely physical awareness in my chest. It’s no wonder that the “critics” who subsist on pop hipster trash or manufactured sentiment hate this picture. In refusing to satirize or trivialize the idealistic holdouts and blue-collar poor folks who inhabit the movie’s isolated island setting, while in fact deploying a good deal of comedy in telling the story, Rebecca Miller and her flawless cast upend all the cultural baggage that accompanies representations of environmentalism, the legacy of the 1960s, the notion of getting back to the land at the expense of not owning a television set, the intimacy of father-daughter relations in the absence of a mother figure, and most likely a whole host of interdependent issues that would require multiple viewings and better note taking on my part to delineate. I hope that the jerks who panned this movie—the ones who assert it “difficult,” or “hippie-dippie,” or that “Daniel Day-Lewis should have said no to this role”—feel, secretly at least, ashamed at the cultural prejudice that The Ballad of Jack and Rose brought out in them and even more ashamed in foisting that prejudice as a given onto their (imagined) target reader.
Set in 1986, and filmed in sequence on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, the movie is redolent of summer heat and earthiness. It’s heady with idealism, warmth, and purity. No image better sums it all up than a shot of dappled sunlight on inlet waters as the 16-year-old Rose swims, after canoeing to a remote, densely forested spot on the island to hunt for snakes with her new “brother” Thaddeus. Although 1986 was the apex of the Reagan era, it was still possible in certain pockets of the United States to live as though the values of the counterculture were in full, non-ironic swing. The movie so strongly distills essences of a collective mind-set that it couldn’t help but stir memories of the Athens, GA I lived in during the mid to late 1980s. Jack Slavin (Day-Lewis), the builder and next-to-last remaining resident of a once thriving commune, would have, especially in his wardrobe of a weathered fedora, one earring, and a dark, plaid overcoat worn over light plaid shirts, fit into Southern eco-iconoclasm very well. It isn’t just the issues raised by The Ballad of Jack and Rose that irk “progressive Democrats” who’ve thrown in the towel and learned to love crap on TV (and not just to love crap, but to “decode” it as well), it’s the film’s pro-nature sensibility, one which could hardly find a less hospitable place and time on theatre screens than in the ice-in-the-veins dead middle of the “new” millennium’s first decade.
The best and most exhilarating sequences in the movie should be discovered by watching the film, watching it as innocent of and unprepared for its contents as you can manage to be, not by having a critic spell it all out, and thus spoil it for you. The rest of my comments are for viewers who’ve already seen The Ballad of Jack and Rose.
And in truth, I don’t want to go through the labors of summarizing—suffice to say that Day-Lewis as Jack and the beautiful, unaffected Camilla Belle as Rose are both magnificently in character as the pampering father and Daddy’s little girl. Although she’s 16, Rose insists that Jack tell her bedtime stories, and he does so, in one hypnotic tale about an ox that knocks at the door to a young maiden’s house, and the maiden’s efforts to pull the ox through an entrance not designed to accommodate such an outsized visitor. Miller uses myth in intriguing ways, never obvious ones. A copperhead snake figures prominently in a few scenes, and though there’s the original temptation to read Jack and Rose’s story through the prism of Eden, Miller has gone well beyond such trite recasting of archetypes.
Jack, dying from an unnamed illness (though it appears to be a form of heart disease), invites his lady friend of four months to stay indefinitely at the rustic, earth house that he and Rose have for so long occupied in solitude. The woman, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), moves in, and Rose feels threatened by someone sleeping with her daddy. Her jealousy initially amuses and pleases Jack, yet this leads to greater, more unsettling instances of “acting out” by Rose.
Miller shows a delicate touch with emotionally charged material, and she has a sense of humor as well. Rose’s attempted seduction of Kathleen’s overweight, not-yet-out-of-the-closet, teenage son Rodney, a scene that’s been singled out in the movie’s ad campaign, is a small comic masterpiece. Rodney, who aspires to become a “women’s hairdresser” because “men don’t take pleasure in their hair,” never removes an orange jacket that he wears zipped all the way up. He evinces such obvious feelings of body shame that he stands an unlikely candidate for seduction—yet on Rose advances toward him, and Rodney’s efforts at fending off his “angelic, possibly disturbed new sister” belong in the same class as Jack Lemmon’s drag queen finally telling Joe E. Brown at the end of Some Like It Hot, “I’m a man!” Ryan McDonald, a young actor with a brief resume, plays Rodney with fantastic ease. The character and the situation could have precariously lapsed into a cartoon, yet thankfully don’t.
Miller’s generosity won’t let that happen. Another example: in an inventively layered sequence, Kathleen stands screaming on the bed—the snake is loose in the bedroom she shares with Jack—just as Jack learns of Rose’s loss of virginity, advertised by a blood-stained white sheet flapping from a clothesline. Ornette Coleman-esque free jazz jaggedly saws on the soundtrack as emotions spiral and masks shatter. As Jack enters the house with a shotgun, Kathleen bolts for the presumed safety of her car to wait out the copperhead’s execution, and at this instant, Beau Bridges makes his first appearance in the movie, as a “putting people first” developer who’s rapidly paving over the island’s once-protected wetlands. This is what I love most about Miller’s astute juggling act: Kathleen, without leaving the car, issues a greeting to Bridges, but not before applying her lipstick.
Intelligent wit at this level so seldom enters into domestic drama that seeing it here must have flummoxed the slow, compartmentalized sensibilities of most reviewers. Yet a lot of viewers at the preview screening I attended were laughing out loud as I was, only to be dazzled by Miller’s use of our laughter to heighten the stark clashes between her characters all the more.
Day-Lewis has given, at times, excessively mannered performances and been praised for them. He reaches uncluttered perfection as Jack. Everything Day-Lewis does here, every nuance of every line, spoken in the lilt of a Scottish accent, works. There’s a moment when Rose, looking back on lovingly shot home movie footage of the commune’s 1970s heyday, makes a mockery of Jack’s ideals in front of the others, and Day-Lewis superlatively reads the line, “How the hell would you know what I believed in,” adding after a very short pause, “sweetheart?” And Jack’s two confrontations with the real estate developer carry the thrill of seeing two actors as diametrically different as Day-Lewis and Beau Bridges act opposite each other, in both meanings of the word.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose has so much to give. It succeeds on terrain similar to where Campbell Scott’s Off the Map disastrously fails. I haven’t seen a better film about a father and daughter, nor a better, more subtly impassioned film on how ideals transmute over time into another substance altogether. – NPT
April 3, 2005