PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

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, and they seem momentarily content, absorbed in one another. And then comes trouble.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Director: Rebecca Miller
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener, Camilla Belle, Paul Dano, Ryan McDonald, Beau Bridges, Jason Lee, Jena Malone, Anna Mae Clinton
MPAA rating: R
Studio: IFC
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 1969-12-31 (Limited release)

"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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.