My beat as a reporter involves seeing a lot of no-budget films from Kyrgyzstan or Upper Volta where the camera is nailed to a tree or tethered to a rampant goat, so I was immediately disoriented by all the elegant, swooping crane and dolly shots of luscious natural splendor in Rebecca Miller's "Ballad of Jack and Rose." My God, I thought, this movie must have cost a trillion bucks! I can't put it in my column! But no it didn't and here it is, and in the spirit of generosity (discussed above) I'm going to steer clear of the Miller-bashing party so many of my fellow scribes and film buffs seem to be enjoying at the moment.
Visually, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is a lolling, luxuriant experience; we drift around the gorgeous East Coast island where a burned-out Scottish engineer named Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives all alone in a former commune with his distressingly beautiful teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). We might be someplace off eastern Long Island or Nantucket or the coast of Maine, but we're really in a mythic America where '60s loners like Jack come face to face with heartless developers who want to bulldoze the Thoreauvian wilderness and put up identical McMansions by the dozen.
This is a lovely movie to look at, and as always Day-Lewis commands the screen, even with a character as inward and tormented as Jack, whose heart is failing and who is beginning to suspect that he's hidden his daughter away from the world for all the wrong reasons. The premise here has terrific potential, and I felt affection for all the characters, including Kathleen (Catherine Keener), the working-class mom who is Jack's secret squeeze and becomes Rose's desperately inappropriate emergency stepmother. Miller is even big-hearted enough to make the stereotyped suburban developer (played by Beau Bridges about as well as you could hope) display a genuine moment of grace.
It's also true that "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is loaded with obvious symbolism out of a junior-year creative writing class -- when Rose is deflowered by Kathleen's stoner son, there's an actual poisonous snake under the bed -- and that the handsome production can't hide the fact that there's nary a surprising moment in the whole film. But when Jack vandalizes one of Bridges' building sites, and then plants his feet and delivers a monologue to Rose about the evils of suburban sprawl ("This isn't a house," he tells her, "it's a thing for keeping the TV dry") I knew exactly what world we were in. If this picture is any indication, Miller is on her way to becoming the female John Sayles, and honestly, people, it's not like that's a major crime against humanity.
In all seriousness, I think Miller is a talented craftswoman who has allowed her access to money and movie stars (she's the daughter of the late Arthur Miller, and is married to Day-Lewis) to distort her apprenticeship. People ridiculed Sofia Coppola for years, until she finally made them shut up. I feel prodigious emotion underneath the pretty, preserved features of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," channelled into a vehicle that's a half-successful imitation of "You Can Count on Me" or "In the Bedroom." Next time out, maybe Miller should ditch the flowers, the chickens and the Bob Dylan songs, fire the expensive cinematographer, and just try to tell a story.
- Andrew O'Hehir
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