Ballad of Jack and Rose, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a low-key character study about a father and daughter whose idyllic lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of three newcomers. Not much happens in this film beyond the evolution of the characters and their relationships. Certainly, no one is the same at the end as they are at the beginning. This is where writer/director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity) succeeds - she breathes life into these individuals and allows them to emerge from the screen.

The story is essentially a modern take on the Garden of Eden, complete with both literal and metaphorical snakes. At times, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is almost top-heavy with symbolism. (Miller's father, the late playwright Arthur Miller, was also fond of this literary tool.) Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), have lived in relative isolation for many years in a disused commune on "an island off the East Coast of the United States." Since they grow their own food and make their own electricity (using windmills), they have little need of outside support. Their only regular visitor is a gardener (Jason Lee) who delivers flowers for Rose to plant. Jack often visits the mainland while Rose remains behind, tending to her garden. But Jack is dying. His heart is weak, and he is concerned about what will happen to Rose, who has indicated that she intends to commit suicide when he dies. So he strikes up a relationship with Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and invites her and her two sons, Thadius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald), to come live with him. The arrival of these strangers is a shock to Rose, and their entrance into the previously closed system leads to a loss of innocence for her and a radical shift in her relationship with Jack.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose is about philosophical conflicts played out in the lives of the protagonists. Consumerism vs. idealism. The future vs. the past. Progress vs. stagnation. Knowledge vs. innocence. Miller is careful not to take sides. This is not a back-to-nature, left-wing treatise on the human condition - she is careful to present the good and bad of both positions. Jack's anti-development stance is taken to ludicrous extremes, and his "rival," builder Marty Rance (Beau Bridges) is presented as an affable, reasonable man. Even Jack is forced to acknowledge that he's a "good guy."

The entrance of the serpent into Jack and Rose' allegorical Eden destroys their harmony. Before the arrival of Kathleen and her sons into their lives and home, they could exist as if the world didn't matter. Sex becomes a big part of the issue. A glimpse of her father and Kathleen behind closed doors opens Rose's eyes to Jack as a carnal being, and propels her on a mission to lose her virginity. Sexual tension develops between father and daughter - something that had not been the case earlier. Rose also develops homicidal tendencies, with jealousy and a lack of awareness driving her most extreme outbursts.

Daniel Day-Lewis apparently lost quite a bit of weight for this role. On those occasions when we see him without a shirt, the almost-skeletal gauntness of his frame is apparent. (I was reminded of Christian Bale in The Machinist). The actor, working for his director-wife Miller, is in semi-retirement, but shows that his acting has lost none of its edge. Camilla Belle is an impressive newcomer - this could be her breakthrough appearance. And, as always, Catherine Keener is solid.

The plot of The Ballad of Jack and Rose relies overmuch on contrivances, but the viewer ends up liking the characters enough that it's hard not to forgive such narrative hiccups. Miller has elected to craft a deliberate pace that may make some less patient members of the audience restless. Yes, The Ballad of Jack and Rose is slow, but it’s the unhurried quality of the production that allows the characters to shine through.

Ballad of Jack and Rose, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2005-03-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1