Arthur Miller was, especially in the early stages of his career, a truly remarkable writer whose plays revealed often uncomfortable facets of human experience in a fashion both dramatically compelling and emotionally rich. On the evidence of this film, his daughter Rebecca is a far lesser artist, whose work may well have some deep personal meaning for her but who doesn’t appear capable of conveying it effectively to a wider audience. Despite the fact that it stars the extraordinary Daniel Day-Lewis (who happens also to be Rebecca’s husband), “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” proves one of those self-consciously gritty but essentially anemic independent features that show up so often at festivals but rarely make it into distribution–a dreary dirge of a movie that’s less about real human beings than characters who are little more than literary contrivances, though well acted ones.
Day-Lewis pays Jack Slavin, an aging hippie who, apart from his predictably precocious sixteen-year old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle), is the sole remaining resident (ca. 1986) of an erstwhile commune on an island off the eastern seaboard. Slavin, a wealthy Scot who has lost none of his counter-culturalist idealism, has raised Rose in isolation from the taint of the outside world, and himself spends his days obstructing the efforts of an ambitious developer (Beau Bridges) to put up tacky modern houses near his property. Jack and Rose live a mutually caring and uncorrupted life, but all is far from well: Jack suffers from that oldest of dramatic crutches, a bad ticker, and, concerned at what will become of his daughter when he’s gone, takes the extraordinary step of inviting his long-time townie girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to move in with them, along with her two sons Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and Thaddius (Paul Dano)–the former a delicate, overweight fellow who wants to be a hairdresser, and the latter a nasty, dissolute kid with distinctly bad habits. The decision proves a terrible mistake: Rose feels abandoned and betrayed by her father, and responds with rebelliousness that takes awful forms. She asks Rodney to have sex with her, and when the young man refuses, has him cut her beautiful hair instead; she has better luck with Thaddius, and then hangs up the bloodstained bedsheet to anger Jack; she brandishes a rifle into the room where Jack and Kathleen are in bed. She even puts together an elaborate show of old commune movies to embarrass her father and cause dissension among their guests, which by now include the boys’ punkish friend Red Berry (Jena Malone). Hanging around the edge of the frame is another character, the likable Gray (Jason Lee), a shambling guy who supplies trimmings from the local nursery for the family garden and who’s the closest thing Rose has to a friend other than her father before the interlopers arrive.
It’s difficult to know what to make of all this, because as writer-director Miller fails to make the overall meaning of the diffuse incidents register. An episode involving an escaped snake in the house is obviously designed to set off scriptural references to the destruction of paradise, but is the advent of evil supposed to be associated with Thaddius, or are we to understand that there’s always been something amiss in the Slavin home, something that led to the departure of Jack’s wife and that has been festering ever since under the apparently blissful father-daughter relationship? Or are we meant to see the uncompromising, manipulative Jack as a twisted soul whose principles have curdled over time into something very near to madness? The possible interpretations may be intriguing, but since Miller hasn’t chosen from among them–and perhaps didn’t even recognize that they all exist–watching the drama play out, very often in over-the-top sequences that would be dismissed as floridly melodramatic if they occurred in a bigger-budget film but in one like this will probably be called harrowing and incisive, is a difficult chore indeed.
One can take some small comfort from the acting. Day-Lewis, very convincingly emaciated (though not to the extent Christian Bale was in “The Machanic”), is his customary charismatic self, even though he can’t make the florid character credible, and Belle does what she can with the wildly erratic Rose. Among the others, McDonald fares best as the likable Rodney, though Dano and Malone have their moments as the brutal Thaddius and the surprisingly sympathetic Red Berry. On the technical side this is a typical independent effort, which means that visually it’s more functional than aesthetically pleasing.
“The Ballad of Jack and Rose” runs under two hours, but its opaque script makes for a lugubrious song with lyrics that strive for poetry but never get beyond the prosaic. “The Ballad of Hack and Prose” might be a better title, in fact.