"The Ballad of Jack & Rose" couldn't be anything but a love story, but it's not one you'll be expecting. Powered by an exceptional performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, this artfully disturbing film is a compelling, imaginative look at the potent emotional bond that forms not between romantic lovers but between fathers and daughters.
As written and directed by Rebecca Miller, "Jack & Rose" is all that and more. Thought-provoking as well as thoughtful, it also deals with the metamorphosis of the counterculture and the death of dreams, with the power of being a young woman and the danger of being an over-reaching alpha male, and with the perils inherent in innocence and the parallel risks lodged in being sure you're right.
While many young directors, too many to lament by name, delight in repeating themselves, Miller has expanded her territory and widened her range with each of her films. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning "Personal Velocity" was an improvement over her debut "Angela," and "Jack & Rose" is her best work yet. In a world where independent ventures can be as monotonous as studio sequels, it's heartening to see a filmmaker willing to deal with situations and issues that stray from the norm.
It's especially satisfying in this case because Miller has managed the difficult feat of taking a theme informed by her experience and beautifully universalizing it. Miller is the child of playwright Arthur Miller, so the notion of a daughter coming to terms with a powerful, charismatic father could not have been unfamiliar territory. "I'm certain that there's some reflections of my own life," she said at Sundance, "but as the writer you're the worst person to be able to tell." At the same time, she has used her knowledge not to narrow but to deepen her story's implications.
Before we meet Jack or Rose, we experience their house, a shambling utopian structure with a character of its own. Beautifully sited on an unnamed East Coast island (shooting by the sterling Ellen Kuras took place on Canada's Prince Edward Island), the house was once the centerpiece of a thriving commune, now, in 1986, abandoned. Except for Jack and Rose.
It is one of the deft, understated accomplishments of Miller's film that when we do meet Jack and Rose, they are so enamored of each other in a playful, bantering way, we can't immediately tell if their relationship is romantic or familial. Inhabiting a bucolic Eden before the fall, they live so much by their own rules they're not aware anymore that that's what they're doing.
Jack the father is an unrepentant, charismatic counter-culturalist who's aging just like his house, someone who retains his penchant for hand-rolled cigarettes and his passion for environmental concerns even though his fellow communards have abandoned him.
It was Jack's trust-fund money that bought the land, and he is still serious about rebuilding society on a small scale, about finding a way to live "without destroying the planet." Now, with his health worsening, his enemy has the specific face of developer Marty Rance (the always welcome Beau Bridges), who thinks encroaching on wetlands is a small price to pay for some spiffy new homes.
Daughter Rose, the classic pre-Raphaelite child-woman of 16, sounds like a standard-issue character. But as written by Miller and acted by 17-year-old veteran Camilla Belle, she is very much her own person. Intellectually sophisticated but sheltered emotionally, she soon puts us in mind of Jack's description of her mother: "dreamy, capricious, inscrutable."
Even in these preliminary stages, Miller pays attention to the texture of this relationship, takes the time to immerse viewers in the characters and their lifestyle. Details like her choice of music for the soundtrack, from Creedence Clearwater Revival's version of "I Put a Spell on You" to Leo Kottke, John Mayall and Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," exactly capture the ambience she wants to create.
Very much a law unto himself, someone who is used to following his own inclinations, even if it means shooting at men working on those model homes, Jack sets things in motion when, with characteristic impulsiveness, he decides to bring his mainland girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to live with him on the island. "It's an experiment, a new chapter," he tells Rose, not knowing just how much truth he's speaking.
For Kathleen doesn't come alone, she brings her teenage sons Thaddius (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and all their attendant psychodramas and neuroses to the island with her. The boys are disgusted by the place's remoteness, calling it "Retro World," while Rose, blindsided by the sudden change, turns into a different person almost overnight. When Jack rails against the world's ecological callousness by saying "we do whatever we want and turn a blind eye to the consequences," he is unknowingly commenting on his own emotional obtuseness as well.
Miller is a former actress, and one of her gifts as a director is the ability to bring out the best aspects of her performers. Keener, adept at seeing the dark humor in a variety of characters, convincingly plays Kathleen with an urgent seriousness she has not displayed before. And Bridges adroitly brings an unforeseen humanity to what could have been a conventionally villainous portrayal.
Best of all is Day-Lewis, who is married to Miller and as an actor is incapable of taking a role without throwing himself into it with total commitment, which in this case included helping to build the house Jack and Rose live in.
Day-Lewis brings Jack alive in all his contradictions and complexities, inhabiting the role completely with a performance that gets progressively deeper and more moving as the film unfolds.
Combining an actor you can't take your eyes off with unapologetically emotional material makes "The Ballad of Jack & Rose" a model of artistic, provocative American filmmaking.
'The Ballad of Jack & Rose'
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content and some drug material
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter, scenes of intense and at times painful sexuality
Daniel Day-Lewis...Jack Slavin
Camilla Belle...Rose Slavin
Jena Malone...Red Berry
Beau Bridges...Marty Rance
An IFC Films production. Writer-director Rebecca Miller. Producer Lemore Syvan. Executive producers Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, Graham King. Director of photography Ellen Kuras. Editor Sabine Hoffman. Costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser. Production designer Mark Ricker. Art director/Construction coordinator Pierre Rovira. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.At the ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times