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Ballad of Jack and Rose, The Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

In The Ballad of Jack and Rose, lust, obsession and jealousy come wrapped in beauty. The location simply described as an isolated island off the East Coast isn't an idyllic soft sand location with palm trees and a beach umbrella. Here, the stark terrain is occasionally interrupted with soft rolling hills sumptuous enough to put the curves of a woman's body to shame. Sometimes the wind kisses the island and lifts shiny strands of hair in a peaceful dance.

That's where we first find Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and daughter Rose (Camilla Belle). Atop their grass-covered roof, they sprout from the ground like wild flowers watching the sky.

Other times, the wind whips up against the island passionately.

And then we begin to notice the closeness of their bodies, their entwined fingers and sidelong looks. It's hard not to look at Rose. In fact, it's difficult to look away from the teenage girl. She is stunning, like a very young Brooke Shields circa The Blue Lagoon, so even her father sits up to notice.

Their home peeks out from the ground as if carved from one giant tree. They hang damp clothes out to dry on laundry lines and harvest wild vegetables for meals. Every thing is recycled. Their life style is the last remnant of the commune life Jack built as an "experiment" with groups of families seeking a simple existence without destroying the environment. But over time, the families and even Jack's wife, moved on leaving father and daughter alone like an unnatural Adam and Eve in their idealistic world.

It's the strain of this relationship that eats away at the last of Jack's strength. The girl whom he fiercely protected from the outside world has become the reason for his sickness, which is never spelled out in medical terms (thank goodness) but we know it's his heart breaking.

He has been set in his ways for so long-home schooling Rose at a young age and preaching lessons of the evil modern world while vandalizing a housing tract being built on a wetland reserve near his property by slimy developer Marty Rance (a pudgy Beau Bridges). In one scene, Jack makes construction workers scatter like flies with a single gun shot in the air and then powerfully sneers at the identical homes built out of synthetic materials. His strength is in his ideals and as they continue to fall apart, so too does Jack.

But he is no Gatsby, foolishly holding on to his ideals until the very end. Jack decides on another "experiment" and invites his across-town lover Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two misfit sons Thaddius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald) to live on the island. Their arrival is foreshadowed by not-so-subtle violent storm that topples Rose's childhood tree house. Indignantly, she calls her new family "so normal" and fights to regain her father's undivided attention via stained sheets and a strategically placed snake.

Jack and Rose's romantic dance-composed of intricate steps of pushing away and pulling close-is mesmerizing and never overtly salacious. Their love story is actually very old fashioned and reminiscent of a Wuthering Heights type romance complete with doom and hints of incest.

Rail thin and visibly awash in guilt, Day-Lewis is exquisite in this role. He's brooding, fierce and pathetically fragile all rolled into one. And where any lesser actor would reduce the character's crumbling resolve to blubbering drivel, Day-Lewis manages to elevate Jack to a somewhat dignified end. He is captivating and burns up the screen with so much intensity that you can't help but sit up and stare in awe at a real actor.

The women are also forces to be reckoned with. Keener is brilliant as usual as the tragic romantic who bends whichever way a man wishes, but is ironically cruel to her overweight son. She is achingly self-conscious, never forgetting to apply another coat of lipstick even while in the throes of panic.
Belle is a smoldering young actress who captures Rose's innocence and sexual precociousness. Her guileless face will make you fall in love with her thanks to writer/director Rebecca Miller's countless close-ups, which literally give zero separation between the audience and the film's character. And the chemistry between Day-Lewis and Belle is powerful.

In another telling scene, Rose wanders into the bedroom with a loaded rifle and fires at Jack and Kathleen in post coital slumber. Although furious, Jack's expression changes from bewilderment to delight-he can't keep from giggling like a young boy delighted by his lover's display of affection.

These are heady issues taken on by a capable director who doesn't just skim the surface her characters; she swims in their emotions. Miller casts a haunting spell in this film that sticks with you long after the movie's end. And like Personal Velocity, her second film (and one of my favorites) about three different women who find themselves mired in trouble, it's obvious that this director is not just her famous playwright father's daughter. She is a skilled storyteller who has triumphed once again with this deeply compelling film.

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