“I put a spell on you, because you’re mine.” The familiar lyrics — in a cover by Creedence Clearwater Revival — buzz over poetic images of red flowers, blue sky, and busy bees. The first moments of The Ballad of Jack and Rose are simultaneously serene and odious, and the spell is unveiled both slowly and unmistakably. Skinny, rickety Jack (a frighteningly thin Daniel Day-Lewis) and lovely, ethereal Rose (Camilla Belle) lie on their backs and gaze up at the clouds above, determining what shapes they’re taking. They inhabit an ideal world, located, a title helpfully informs you, on an isolated island off the “Eastern Coast of the United States, 1986.” They coo and cuddle, he coughs ominously (see also: Camille), and they seem momentarily content, absorbed in one another. And then comes trouble.
Construction sounds off in the background remind Jack that their idyll is threatened, and so he runs off with his shotgun, Rose riding along in their ancient pickup, so she can watch as he shoots up the site, scattering the workers and so, stopping their work. Just as the scene seems cryptic, however, it also throws up the film’s thematic concerns in plain view. As much as Jack and Rose appear self-sufficient (they produce their own food, don’t own a TV, only occasionally venture “into town”), they also face an imminent end. Jack is afflicted by a wasting disease (his heart), Rose, so naïve and so sweet, will be alone. The construction site represents the incursion of “progress,” the change that will come, no matter how much the father and daughter want to put it off.
Their relationship is made something of an awkward question during the film’s first moments, as they seem too intimate, too wrapped up in one another. They spend a lot of time together. As is very soon clear, their home is what’s left of a commune Jack lorded over during the ’60s, and Rose is his most precious outcome, the “natural” child untainted by commercialism or greed or even, ostensibly, by curiosity. She’s happy to have Jack take care of everything, so that she can wander through the sun-dappled fields in her gauzy peasant dresses and jeans, her long dark hair framing her lovely face. It helps immensely that all this is composed by the brilliant cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who also worked on Miller’s previous feature, Personal Velocity, as well as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: here her camera alternately prowls and reels back, taking in all this fantastic, constant beauty and looking forward toward its inevitable, subtle end.
Lost in his own away amid the visual abundance, Jack’s solution to what he perceives as his dilemma — how to take care of Rose after he’s gone (this leaves out that it’s actually her dilemma, or will be) — is to bring in another caretaker, namely, his recently acquired town-dwelling lover, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), along with her two sons (by different fathers — she’s also something of a free spirit), Thaddius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald). At Jack’s invitation, the new family unit arrives on Jack and Rose’s doorstep, throwing all their previous 18 years of unhurried sublimity into a deep hole of desperation and transformation.
The intrusion (at least in Rose’s not-exactly-wide-open eyes) occasions all sorts of crises, not least being her own decision that her sexual deflowering is the best way to get back at hr father for his betrayal. She takes aim at the two boys, manifest vehicles, first the self-conscious, overweight, and hair-stylist in training Rodney, whom she approaches on their first night on the island, bestowing on him a look at her nubile naked torso; McDonald is wholly convincing as the frightened but also enticed and self-knowing boy, and for the few minutes he’s in focus, the film seems poised to take flight. But these minutes are fleeting, and soon Rodney’s left to the background, as the more self-absorbed, cynical, and patently angry-young-man Thaddius steps forward to fix Rose’s attention and disrupt Jack’s scheme.
This scheme is clumsy from its inception, of course, though his colluders — especially Kathleen — seem initially willing to go along. One reason is money. Jack has lots of it, apparently deriving from some inheritance, and regularly writes checks to get his way. Thus his seeming foundational ethos — all open-sky and live-off-the-landish — is suspect, only it takes Jack the entire movie to realize that he’s more like the developer who so irks him, Marty (Beau Bridges), than unlike him. Marty has been trying to buy Jack’s plot of “wetland” to incorporate into the tract that serves as Jack’s repeated target, and so they stand off, repeatedly. Though they imagine they define “progress” differently, in fact, the film suggests, they are both possessive, destructive personalities, products of their masculine, perpetual prerogatives more than any particular ideology or era.
Rose fights back with girlish rage and ferocity, enduring passionless sex with Thaddius, using her dad’s own memories against him (in the form of grainy, happy home movies of the commune days). But as wise as she seems, in her feral-childish way, Rose is also profoundly unknowing. While for Rodney, smitten in his way, this makes her reckless abuses of people seem a function of innocence, the film points out that she’s more likely a function of Jack’s sense of preciousness and ignorance. This leaves Rose without much recourse or responsibility, such that the movie turns ever inward.
And the film is precious in itself, off-putting and unresolved, less insightful than invested in its own eccentricities, making points that are more evident than it seems to think. This even as you admire its sporadic delicacy and ambition. This mix of obviousness and earnest effort reminds you also of Miller’s tangle of relations, not only with her husband playing the dangerously naïve and difficult father, but also her own father, the late Arthur Miller. She resists reading too much into the connections, as this is a film she wrote initially 10 years ago, before she met Day-Lewis. And still, the connections shape art and reception. She tells Salon, “Whether we like it or not, we are connected to our parents, to their parents before them. We are part of a chain of human beings; we don’t create ourselves. The idea that we can make a total break is an illusion. I think we all find that on some level we’re continuing their work.” If it’s no total break, then, The Ballad of Jack and Rose continues.