As far as I can tell, the point of “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” is to warn us not to be single-minded idealists who ruin our lives and the lives of others through our obsessions.
Well, OK. I hadn’t planned on it, really. The warning is appreciated, but unnecessary, thank you.
What we have here, in writer/director Rebecca Miller’s follow-up to her equally obfuscated “Personal Velocity,” is a movie that breathes with interesting characters but that eventually becomes so “interesting” itself that it crosses over into “preposterous” territory. You pile up too many unusual people and events and the thing’s bound to tip over.
This moody drama is set on an island of the East Coast in 1986. Here live Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his 16-year-old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), alone on what used to be a commune, back when Jack and Rose’s mother and innumerable other hippies dwelt in peace and harmony and marijuana. Now it’s just Jack and Rose, though, and they live remotely and sparsely, but pleasantly enough. Rose is home-schooled by Jack and has no contact with the outside world. They have electricity, but prefer not to use it. When a developer (Beau Bridges) starts building houses on the other side of the island, Jack fires a shotgun into the construction site. The ’60s are over, but don’t tell Jack that. He clings to the ideals he held then, and is disgusted by the greedy, corporate America that lives today.
Jack is dying, slowly, but Rose doesn’t want to hear it. Never having known any other life, she cannot imagine living without her father. And so she is vexed greatly when Jack invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons — the intelligent, circumspect Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and his younger, more sex-crazed brother Thaddius (Paul Dano) — to come live with them. This is Jack and Rose’s home. Two is company, but five is liable to give Rose a breakdown.
Aaaand … cue breakdown. Seeing her father and Kathleen having sex is all it takes to bring out the craziness that has bubbling under Rose’s surface for years. She is maladjusted and unable to deal with life; “She is the way you’ve made her,” Kathleen correctly observes to Jack. Rose has been sheltered from reality and thus finds reality frightening.
The film uncovers layer after layer in the characters’ back-stories and psyches, deftly doing so without a lot of expository dialogue or flashbacks. Rodney says her mother has moved in with Jack because she has a “savior complex,” and he’s absolutely right, but he and Thaddeus have psychologies, too. Miller isn’t content to give us two central characters and a handful of wallflowers. She gives everyone depth.
Jack’s depth, unfortunately, just irritates me. This man is a piece of work. He refuses to realize first that Rose is insane, and second that it’s his fault. Once he does accept these facts, it is too late and not enough. I like Day-Lewis’ performance, but I dislike the character strongly — and he’s the main character.
Beyond that, the film’s trouble arise when the plot begins to go as insane as Rose. Her sexual awakening, her behavior toward Kathleen, an injury Thaddeus receives during a late-night visit to what used to be the commune’s “acid pad” — it careens out of control, all these little dramas, all this angst, all this quasi-deep symbolism (watch for “Eve” to bring a snake into “paradise”!). It is a quiet, character-driven piece that slowly gets too big for itself.
C+ (1 hr., 51 min.; )