Rebecca Miller’s Ballad of Jack and Rose is carried along just so far by the mesmeric performances of her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Camilla Belle in the title roles. They play a father and daughter who are the only human remnants of the ruined and abandoned hippie commune where they still live, standing for a failed moral and cultural revolution whose only vestiges are the odd futile gesture of protest against “development” and thoughts of incest. As for deeds of incest, Miss Miller leaves us to make up our own minds. Did they or didn’t they? Having brought the matter up and related it so boldly and provocatively to Jack’s faded hopes for the transformation of society, it seems to me an act of cowardice for her not to tell us. In the end, the hippie dream lives on as if its confrontation with an apparently fatal self-contradiction had never happened.
Even the compulsively watchable performances of Mr. Day-Lewis and Camilla Belle — with a name like that she herself must be a bit of a flower-child — cannot get the movie over this drawback, which is made worse by Rebecca Miller’s desperately clunky script. For there’s just a bit too much going on in Jack’s life at once. Not only is he tempted to commit incest with a daughter who is suspiciously willing to oblige, but he is also a cardiac patient expecting the final heart attack at virtually any moment. Rose tells him, and seems to mean it, that when he dies she’ll kill herself.
I should say one or the other, Rebecca, but not both.
And even that’s not the end of it. You or I might think that contemplating the violation of a socially foundational taboo while facing one’s imminent disappearance behind the door marked “eternity” — together, of course, with sporadic acts of violence and vandalism against the ticky-tacky houses being put up in this bucolic neighborhood by Marty Rance (Beau Bridges) — would be enough to keep most guys fully occupied. Not Jack. No, to the tremendous disgust of Rose he resists temptation by inviting into his rustic shack — bare wood walls, no TV, only wind-mill generated electricity — his sometime girlfriend of a few months’ standing, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), and her two nearly grown sons, Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thadius (Paul Dano). Kathleen is a woman of apparently conventional tastes and ideas whose sons are the product of two different fathers, both long gone. Rodney is an aspiring women’s hairdresser in a nylon jacket he refuses to remove who doesn’t want to think about his sexuality. Thadius is a budding sociopath with an unhealthy interest in poisonous snakes.
So what do you think? Does it sound to you as if this is all going to work out for the big, happy, hippie family?
Kathleen’s otherwise inexplicable agreement to take part in such an obvious emotional train-wreck in the making is supposed to be explained by the fact that she has a “savior complex,” but this is not consistent with what we see of her subsequently. In any case, it beggars belief that the boys would enter into such a hare-brained scheme, even as reluctantly as they do here. And that’s all without mentioning the unexplained eagerness of Rose to hop into the sack with her desperately sick daddy. The most basic task of the screenwriter is to get her characters from A to B without making the audience say, “Huh? Why would she do that?” Rebecca Miller, daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller, isn’t up to it. It presumably doesn’t seem a matter of much importance to her, at least not in comparison with the need to set up this exquisite dilemma of a sexual revolutionary simultaneously confronted with his own death and that of his utopian ideals — a dilemma which she then fails to resolve.
There is one outstanding scene in the film, which comes as Jack and Rose pay a visit to the developer, Marty Rance, whom he has lately threatened to kill. In the midst of a predictable argument in which environmental concern is pitted against “progress,” Jack becomes very ill and at the same time experiences a sudden revelation. “We’re not so very different,” he says to Marty. “We both do whatever the f— we want, and we both turn a blind eye to the consequences. You love those little houses and I hate those little houses. It all boils down to taste!” It’s a moment of despair. At once, on impulse, Jack offers to sell his jealously guarded property to the enemy, but Marty refuses to write the check, saying he’ll stop by his place later to discuss it. “He’s a decent guy,” the dazed and bewildered Jack says to Rose as he staggers back to the car. “He could have taken advantage of me, and he didn’t.”
I would have found it a lot easier to forgive Miss Miller her dramaturgical lapses if they had been incurred in the pursuit of that moment of insight and one or two of its multifarious ramifications. What, for instance, are the implications for the question of incest of this reduction of a lifetime of high moral purpose to a simple matter of taste? What about Rose’s proposed suicide? But all such questions are simply abandoned, along with Jack’s self-doubt and his tumbledown hippie commune. Too bad the film didn’t take Marty beyond just not being a caricature bad guy and get him to develop them all.
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