"THE BALLAD of Jack and Rose" is an engaging battle between terrific acting and a flawed script. Unfortunately, the actors -- including Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener and extraordinary newcomer Camilla Belle -- lose. Writer-director Rebecca Miller's screenplay is provocative and original enough to hold its ground for a long time. But when the big picture becomes clear, our belief and trust ebb away.
Jack (Day-Lewis) and his 16-year-old daughter, Rose (Belle), live together in a self-built house on an island somewhere off the East Coast. The year is 1986. Their home is the last holdout of a hippie commune founded some 20 years earlier. They live off the land in what seems to be an idyllic existence. But there is trouble without and within. Their privacy is threatened by Marty Rance (Beau Bridges), a developer who is erecting ugly prefab homes everywhere. Jack's response is to load his shotgun and scare off the workmen.
Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and daughter Rose (Camilla Belle) live an isolated life until outsiders intervene in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose."
Jack is also ailing with something, for which he needs pills. The sickness is serious enough, it seems, for him to seek parental help. He asks his girlfriend, Kathleen (Keener), and her two teenage sons, Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thaddius (Paul Dano), to move in with him. But Rose, who has never met Kathleen, is openly hostile to the new arrangement. And when she doesn't like something, she does dramatic things. Jack realizes that, as long as he has lived with Rose, he knows almost nothing about her.
The surprises of this movie are in the revelations about the characters. Everyone is deeply intriguing, including Rodney, a surly kid who once made pocket money trapping snakes for an evangelist, and Thaddius, a social wallflower with a sensitive appreciation for Rose's vulnerability. The in-house war is the best part of the movie, as Jack and Rose (the established order) take on Kathleen and her male invaders. But it also marks the beginning of the film's premature demise, although there is some entertainment in the protracted conflict between Jack and Marty.
Miller, who is married to Day-Lewis and is the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, has a signature style that is refreshingly heedless of the boring laws of narrative and visual continuity. (She also made 2002's assured "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits," starring Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk.) "Jack and Rose" seems to wander wherever it likes, always looking for amusing or provocative character behavior. But that looseness also proves Miller's undoing. The serendipity becomes tedious and random, and the themes (the tyranny of idealism vs. the tyranny of civilization, for instance) are so fraught with forced profundity, they become laughably schematic. Jack and Rose are supposed to be facing some of the most torturous questions in their lives, but they end up looking increasingly silly. We start off quite fascinated by them. We end up just hoping they'll find a graceful exit. Perhaps there's a back-handed compliment in all this: At least we were invested enough in the movie to be disappointed.
THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE (R, 111 minutes) -- Contains sex scenes, nudity, obscenity and drug use. At Loews Shirlington, Loews Georgetown, Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Fairfax.