'Ballad': A Shadowy Father Figure
Friday, April 1, 2005
The title characters of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" are a father and daughter but, living in Edenic isolation on an unnamed island, gazing with languid seductiveness at each other, they often resemble lovers in this tale of mixed signals, blurry boundaries and letting go.
As portrayed by the redoubtable Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack -- an unreconstructed hippie living on an abandoned commune with 16-year-old Rose (Camilla Belle) -- is a slinky, dangerous presence, much like the copperhead snake that slithers its way through the movie's subtext. But he never comes fully into focus as an ambiguous protagonist on the order, say, of Kevin Bacon's pedophile in "The Woodsman." Perhaps because filmmaker Rebecca Miller is married to Day-Lewis, or because she herself is the daughter of a formidable father (the late playwright Arthur Miller), "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" finally suffers from a failure of nerve. Just as the snake never bites, Jack never fully emerges as the monster, albeit an unsettlingly seductive one, that the story demands.
As Campbell Scott did in his recent film "Off the Map," Miller has chosen to place her characters in a milieu rarely seen on-screen -- that is, off the grid of the cultural and technological mainstream. In "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," the title characters form a nation of two on an island "off the East Coast of America" (played in the movie by Prince Edward Island), living in an earth house that is half-buried in the bluffs overlooking a spectacular bay. Just like the adolescent girl in "Off the Map," Rose has mixed feelings about her unconventional life. While she adores her father and lovingly tends a fecund garden outside her own treehouse, she is also drawn to the pop-up suburban houses a developer is building on the other side of the island. We meet Jack when he's defacing one of these ticky-tacky boxes, spray-painting "Wetland" on its unfinished wall; his objections aren't just political but aesthetic. "This isn't a house," he says during a graffiti session at one point. "It's a thing to keep the TV dry."
Jack's last name is Slavin and when people say it aloud it comes out as "Jack's leavin'," and it turns out that he is. Suffering from a fatal heart condition, Jack tries to prepare Rose for his inevitable demise, which sends her into fits of panic and, eventually, even physical passion for the man who has so potently defined her world. In an effort to defuse a potentially disastrous situation, Jack invites his sometime girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two teenage sons to live with him and Rose. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of a female rival and two hormonally challenged boys does little to assuage Rose's difficulties.
As she did in her previous movie "Personal Velocity," Miller seeks here to examine the mystical, often scarring ties that bind fathers and daughters. And, as in that film, she has coaxed terrific performances from her players -- not just the dependably charismatic Day-Lewis (here whittled down to a sinewy wraith) and the quietly magnetic Belle, but also Keener and the two actors who play her sons. The young Canadian actor Ryan McDonald, who resembles a heavyset version of the deadpan comedic actor Chris Eigeman, deserves special mention for injecting some understated humor at crucial moments.
But, like "Personal Velocity," "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" often seems less like a fully realized film than an illustrated story, its paragraphs reduced to neatly contrived set pieces. What's more, Miller handles the film's incendiary central subject -- incest -- with a discretion that borders on cowardice; Jack himself ultimately succumbs to self-loathing, but he's never presented uncompromisingly enough for the audience to reach that conclusion themselves. Finally, as its tacked-on, anodyne coda makes clear, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is too eager to end on a major key, never giving full voice to its darker, far more compelling motifs.