|Ballad of Jack & Rose, The|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 25 March 2005|
But soon we realize that’s far from the truth. Rose used to go to school off-island, but since she was 11, Jack, who’s well-educated, has been tutoring her at home. Jack also inherited a lot of money, so they have no problems in that area. But Rose is very curious about the world and has no immediate way of finding out anything about it—Jack firmly vetoes her request for television.
Jack is an idealist, but he’s stern and unyielding; we never learn why the other commune members, which included “engineers, carpenters, a couple of scientists” and Jack’s wife left the island. All we know is that the commune collapsed years before, and that Jack probably drove the others away due to his uncompromising nature. Now there are complications: he’s terminally ill (we never learn what the problem is), Rose is reaching sexual maturity—and Jack finds himself disturbingly attracted to her.
So he goes to the mainland to invite free spirted Kathleen (Catherine Beller) to come out to the commune with him—he even pays her to do this. When she arrives, she has in tow her two teenage sons from different fathers, pudgy Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and younger, X-gen Thaddius (Paul Dano). Rose is shocked and angry that Jack could so easily burden her with these other people—“they brought their lamps!” she exclaims.
But this also opens a door for Rose. The same night the newcomers arrive, she asks a shocked, amused Rodney to make love to her, but he declines. Instead, he cuts her hair. She turns her attention to Thaddius, but he’s out collecting snakes and, later on, having sex with Rodney’s somewhat wild friend who calls herself Red Berry (Jena Malone). Snakes—copperheads and the one-eyed trouser kind—figure in the plot.
There are personality conflicts, of course, mostly low-key and polite, although Rose does come into Jack and Kathleen’s bedroom with a shotgun. But the movie is frequently funny, mostly thanks to the wry, gentle Rodney (we never learn if he’s gay, but it’s a possibility). As Rose pilots him wildly across a bay in a skiff, she asks him if he’s ever considered suicide. Glancing nervously about, Rodney admits he has—but he’d rather do it himself….
“The Ballad of Jack and Rose” is written and directed by Rebecca Miller, the daughter of the late Arthur Miller; she gained some recognition a few years ago for “Personal Velocity.” She’s married to Daniel Day-Lewis, who the press notes claim Miller didn’t initially consider for the leading role.
Good thing he decided to do it, though—he is, as usual, so good that he seems to surpass or bypass acting altogether. As he’s done in the past, like in his Oscar-winning role in “My Left Foot,” Day-Lewis so totally becomes the character on screen that you rarely feel that you’re watching a performance, but instead a life being lived before your eyes. He even looks different, rangy and wiry as in “The Last of the Mohicans,” but also like he’s slowly crumbling. He dramatizes the idea that Jack is dying so clearly that we didn’t need to be told he is.
Jack is furious at amiable contractor Marty Rance (Beau Bridges), who’s in the process of building condos on what Jack feels is protected wetlands. Jack is trying to take a strong stand even as his life at home is troubled, even ending. He’s not a tragic figure, but somewhat forlorn, dark-toned wistful, someone who seems to come from a time even earlier than the late ‘60s, when the commune was assembled. He turned his back on the world, but realizes sadly that while this decision was good for him, it’s not good for Rose.
Camilla Belle is perfectly cast as the innocent, quiet and intelligent Rose. She’s beautiful with the long hair she’s wearing as the movie opens, beautiful after it’s shorn by would-be hairdresser Rodney. She’s really the center of the story, but Miller doesn’t give her any actressy, scene-dominating moments—Belle works instead from the inside out.
As Kathleen, Katherine Keener is sensual, funny and a bit clueless—she doesn’t understand Jack’s tidy method of sorting trash and she’s convinced a good breakfast will bring everyone together. She’s also insecure about getting older; though she’s almost as much of a hippie as Jack, she places a lot of emphasis on makeup, and when the contractor arrives, even while she’s in the middle of a panic attack regarding the snake, she quickly applies lipstick. But she’s not a comic figure; the movie respects her.
The rest of the cast is excellent, including a surprisingly aged-looking Jason Lee as a local handyman/gardener, one of the few outsiders Rose is familiar with. Partly because he’s the source of most of the humor, Ryan McDonald is particularly pleasing.
But the movie never engages our emotions as much as is clearly intended; we remain removed from all these people, watching them but not empathizing with them. There’s no real suspense, except briefly at the end, just a melancholy working out of the end of Jack’s life. Miller shot the film in sequence, and while most of the cinematography (by Ellen Kuras) is satisfactory, there’s too many hand-held closeups. This was intended to give the film an intimacy and immediacy, but it’s distracting and a little irritating.
Sometimes the symbolism is a little arch and obvious. Rose has a small treehouse she prizes, but during the time her father is beginning to believe she has to leave the island, a windstorm brings the treehouse down. As Rose loses her virginity, a captive copperhead glides silently under her bed, simultaneously a standard phallic symbol, a representation of Rose’s loss of innocence, and confusingly a symbol for Rose herself.
But at least there is symbolism. “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” is a very intelligent movie intended for sophisticated adults, and for the most part, it’s interesting and engrossing, if not quite involving. The end of the film is satisfying and disturbing—has Rose exchanged one kind of benign prison for another?