The Ballad of Jack and Rose, the disturbing and ultimately pointless new film by Rebecca Miller, and starring her real-life husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, seems to have a lot to say but ends up saying nothing all that special. Worse than that, the film meditates on a sick relationship between a father and daughter in a way that itself seems unhealthy — is there really a reason to “go there” with such hearty gusto?
Miller is a brave and adventurous filmmaker who isn’t about to stop her own exploration of the sexual power of the female, a recurrent theme in all of her films, especially in her last one, Personal Velocity. She is at once fascinated and saddened by what young, pretty women (or, in this case, girls) can do just by lifting their skirts. Indeed, there is something sad about the sexually empowered female – the constant battle with giving the right amount or too much away.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose plays much like a rambling Bob Dylan song, whom Miller references three times, as well as using telling Dylan ballads, like “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Shooting Star,” except in this version of the love story, we’re talking about a thwarted hippie and his “ruined” retarded daughter.
Jack (Day-Lewis) had once been part of a fun-loving, socially conscious commune – the kind we children of the ’60s are all too familiar with – naked fruitarians and their offspring frolicking about – boundaries be damned, sprung from a pseudo-philosophy invested in the idea that the world could be changed for the better, but ultimately becoming a quagmire. From there, the hippies reformed, went into therapy and hoped that their children would forgive them for their irresponsible behavior.
Jack’s commune has long since been abandoned and the only two who remain are Jack, a red-blooded male, and his daughter, a beautiful, ripening fruit. With nothing and no one but each other, they develop an unhealthy attachment – so much so that when Rose learns that her father’s weak heart is about to give out, she vows to kill herself, too, a promise that sends Jack reeling.
While Jack is comforting Rose, they get too close for comfort – Jack touches her lips in an intimate way. They both notice. Jack knows something must be done or there is only one direction in which their relationship can go. Jack reconnects with his girlfriend from town, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and convinces her to move in with Rose and him. Not the best idea, considering Rose has never so much as met his father’s some-time girlfriend. Making matters worse, Kathleen brings her two odd teenage sons with her. All of this is a recipe for disaster.
As Rose comes to terms with her own feelings of love for her father, she must also deal with the inevitable, intense jealousy she feels when he starts sleeping with his new live-in gal. Rose exhibits crazy behavior –showing up with a gun in his bedroom, bringing a copperhead snake into the house, but probably worst of all – urging both teenage sons and any available male to teach her how to kiss or lose her virginity. If her father is doing it, she has to do it, too. Father and daughter play a bizarre game of cat and mouse — making each other jealous and then getting satisfaction out of watching the other’s violent reaction to it.
It takes a few well-chosen words from Kathleen, and more painful “passes” by Rose, for Jack to come to terms with what he has done – closed his daughter off from reality, cutting off her interaction with the world he so detested until she became a freak – a tree grown root-bound, an innocent victim who doesn’t know the half of what her life is really about.
By the time Jack realizes it, it is almost too late. And by the end, the film feels like it’s waited too long to formulate its meaning and has spent far too much time explicating the relationship between Jack and Rose, something we get early on. There isn’t much of a payoff for having endured the hour-and-a-half with these characters, no matter how well they’re acted, beyond a prurient one.
For his part, Day-Lewis does act the part beautifully. Ironically, Miller offered him the part before the two ever met and married. He said no. After they lived together and had children together, he finally agreed. As Rose, Camilla Belle shines. As frustrating as her character is, she has the audience’s sympathy; it isn’t her fault she was made this way. Where Miller is coming from with Jack and Rose is tough to say – yes, she is the daughter of America’s most beloved playwright, Arthur Miller, who died recently. Clearly, Miller is working something out. But I’ll leave that to her undoubtedly well-paid shrink. As to where she’s going as a filmmaker – that remains uncertain. This is her third and most complex film to date. The film is problematic, no doubt, but her small body of work so far does give evidence of an artist in the making, someone who will not settle for mediocre or mainstream storytelling, who is still working on her own personal velocity.