The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Assuming that today’s indie demographic has never endured such navel-gazing boomer melancholia as The Big Chill, The Big Fix, or Return of the Secaucus Seven, writer/director Rebecca Miller offers yet another ’60s eulogy, The Ballad of Jack and Rose. As thematically self-obsessed as we’ve come to expect from the subgenre, the nicest thing you can say about it is that it re-creates the sense of enervated stasis experienced by extremely isolated people stuck in the sticks doing nothing. Which may not be your idea of a good night out.
Set in the mid-’80s, it’s about aging environmentalist Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his weird daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). Thanks to an endless trust fund, the two live in high hippie style (no TV, little electricity, lots of weeds) on some unspecified East Coast island. On the verge of death, and concerned about Rose’s future, he pays his lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and her two teen boys to move in with him. Rose reacts to the new arrivals by getting her hair pixie-cut, attacking Kathleen with a shotgun, having sex and then hanging her blood-soaked sheets in the wind, and threatening but, alas, not committing suicide. If Rose represents the wild spirit of the ’60s reborn, it doesn’t say much for the decade.
Day-Lewis is terrific, evoking inner strength by playing against physical frailty, and suggesting depths absent from Miller’s script. That his character treats Kathleen like a whore—cutting her checks for whatever he needs from her—is blithely ignored. More troubling is an incestuous moment that wanders in from another film and, just as quickly, wanders out. Most self-immolating is the film’s thematic crux, represented by Jack’s ongoing battle with wetlands-destroying developer Marty (Beau Bridges). We’re asked to side with Jack’s values—environmental responsibility, creating things by hand, stuff like that. OK. Marty, meanwhile, stands for all Jack loathes: greed, identi-kit aesthetics, rapacious environmental disregard.
Yet after a torrential downpour of signifiers—Bob Dylan songs, a shot of Jack’s favorite book, Moby Dick, etc.—Jack makes a theme-obliterating we’re-more-alike-then-we-think speech to Marty that punctures the film’s entire point—that dreams made real do matter. Just because Marty doesn’t force the dying Jack to sell his land on the spot doesn’t so much elevate his moral standing as it does demonstrate how cheap redemption comes in Miller’s world. Even more depressing, Jack’s last speech implies that everything—values, goals, worldview—is just a matter of gesture and passing style. Which makes for one disheartening, hollow ballad.