Saturday, September 19, 2009


You either love “The Ballad of Jack & Rose”(**** out of ****) or you hate it. I loved it, but I hated watching it the first time because it is a genuine work of art with shocks and surprise that you cannot prepare yourself for and you shutter when you see what is going to happen. Furthermore, I can understand why some people would heap praise on this quirky bit of avant-garde filmmaking while others would condemn it to oblivion. The characters lack sympathy. They are all very selfish. The protagonist turns over a new leaf toward the end, but you don't see it coming. “The Ballad of Jack & Rose” is for people who take movies seriously and have no time to waste on Hollywood hokum. You don’t watch this film to relax and unwind. The story of the destruction of family is serious business despite some humorous interludes. Imagine watching a soap opera that could masquerade as social commentary about America after the 1960s. It is the kind of movie that would be terrific as the epilogue to class about the Hippie movement, Free Love, return to the wilderness, and it segues into the environmentalist movement. This movie is not suitable for children and if you cannot watch it in a single sitting, you are liable to feel like you are serving time just to get through its one hour and fifty-one minutes. The cast is extraordinary with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis delivering a slam bang performance while Catherine Keener. Writer & director Rebecca Miller has helmed a film that is the American equivalent to an Ingmar Bergman film. Subtlety is the order of the day in “The Ballad of Jack & Rose.” The characters are neither stereotype nor are they unrealistic. There are times, perhaps best described as uncomfortable, when lenser Ellen Kuras makes her camera such an integral part of the setting with the characters that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on these two families and their troubles.

“The Ballad of Jack & Rose” takes place in the year 1986 on an island off the East Coast of the United States. Essentially, this is a soap opera about the theme of jealousy. Jack Slavin (Daniel Day-Lewis of “My Left Foot”) is a naturalized Scotsman who was once an engineer. Now, he is an ex-hippie turned environmentalist who sees no salvation in a future hard-wired by technology and growth has settled on this anonymous island where he lives now with his 16-year old daughter Rose (Camilla Belle of “Push”) since his wife went away. You can catch glimpses of the Slavins’ earlier lives during a scene about three-fourths of the way through it when Rose shows 8mm home movies about them. Jack’s wife left him and he has been raising Rose. Every quarter our protagonist leaves the island for the mainland and hooks up with Kathleen (Catherine Keener of “Living in Oblivion”) to satisfy his sexual needs. Recently, Jack has learned that he has heart disease and he isn’t getting around as agilely as he used to so he invites Kathleen and her two sons, Rodney (Ryan MacDonald of “Halloween: Resurrection”) and Thaddius (Paul Dano of “The Girl Next Door”) to join them.

Aside from an occasional guest, such as Gray (Jason Lee of “Mallrats”), nobody visits the Slavins. Gray shows up to bring Rose her flowers, otherwise, Jack and Rose are left alone entirely to themselves. This unconventional lifestyle has turned Rose into a near-sighted illusionist. She doesn’t want to share anybody with Jack. Indeed, when her father raises the subject of his imminent death, Rose notifies him that she plans to commit suicide after he dies because life won’t be worth living without him. Of course, Rose’s confession horrifies Jack, and he asks her to recant. The only other interlopers on the island are the construction workers who are building a series of apartments for a land developer, Marty Rance (Beau Bridges of “Norma Rose”) and Jack has a running feud with Marty. Marty knows that Jack is responsible for harassing his workers and creating acts of vandalism against his property, but he hasn’t called in the authorities. Jack holds the issue of wetlands over Marty’s head. You see, Marty is building his real estate on government protected marshlands and Jack threatens to expose him if he doesn’t cease and desist.

Meanwhile, matters reach a boil when Kathleen and her teenage sons arrive and set up house with them. Jack assures Rose that the presence of these outsiders is nothing more than an experiment. Reluctantly, Rose accepts them. Initially, nothing untoward occurs until Rose behaves like a voyeur and watches Jack and Kathleen hope in the sack for sex. As Jack and Kathleen have sex, Rose approaches Rodney with an invitation to have sex with her. Rose is a virgin. In fact, she has never been kissed and earlier she tried to persuade Gray to kiss her but he refused. Unfortunately, for Rose, she cannot seduce the paunchy Rodney who never removes his windbreaker jacket and has decided to become a hairstylist for women. Rodney agrees to cut her hair. Deliberately, she arms herself with a double-barrel shotgun and invades their privacy. When they pause to recognize her, she discharges the shotgun more out of shock than design. Indeed, Rose wants to share her father with nobody.

Later, Rose has a tryst with Thaddius who is a diametrical opposite of his younger brother Rodney. They have sex in her room in her bed. The next day Jack sees the sheets waving in the breeze with a blood stain on it and the words “This is an experiment” with an arrow pointing at the blood stain. Of course, Jack is furious. Rose is still trying to get back at her father for having sex with Kathleen. In fact, she has stolen one of Thaddeus’s cages to trap copperhead snakes and has put it under her bed. During her rendezvous with Thaddius, their bumping and grinding released the door to the cage and snake got out. Later, Kathleen freaks out when she sees the copperhead. Jack cannot find it. Jack has a showdown with Thaddius on the site of an old commune and they fight about his having sex with Rose. Jack knocks Thaddius out of a tree and breaks both legs and an arm. Kathleen takes her son back to the mainland, but before they leave, Thaddius tells her that Rose tried to kill her by releasing the snake in the house.

Writer & director Rebecca Miller doesn’t flinch at tackling uncomfortable themes. During one scene, Jack winds up being kissed by his daughter on the lips and he feels guilty. Eventually, Jack dies and Rose turns their house (they shun television) into a floral arrangement and sets it on fire while she curls up next to her death father. Just when you think that she is going to die with her dad, she breaks out and goes off on her own to make a life.

No comments: