Beast of Eden
By Jeannette Catsoulis

The Ballad of Jack and Rose
Dir. Rebecca Miller, U.S., IFC Films

Writer-director Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, is so gorgeously photographed, so thoughtfully performed, and so relentlessly sincere, you can almost overlook how truly awful it is. In fact, if you squint your eyes and focus on the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis and the honeyed images of cinematographer Ellen Kuras, it should take you at least 30 minutes to wilt with disappointment.

Set on an unspecified East Coast island, on the remnants of a hippie commune founded by Jack (Day-Lewis) and his long-gone wife, the movie is an earnest wallow in the death of idealism and the dangers of isolationism. Living alone with his unworldly teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), Jack spends his days ranting against consumerism and shooting at unwary developers who dare to encroach on his wetlands. In the evenings, he home-schools Rose, virtually guaranteeing her inability to ever join the real world. For her part, the adoring looks she casts in her father’s direction—and her determination to kill herself when his weak heart finally gives out—ought to warn him their relationship might not be the healthiest.

Miller, who had a modest hit with 2002’s Personal Velocity, is an intelligent director, and she doesn’t ignore the obvious incestuous sparks between an unsocialized daughter and a hero-worshipped father. What she does ignore is Jack’s culpability for Rose’s ultimately violent actions—curdled values tend to create toxic child-rearing environments. Jack may seem like some benignly aging earth-father, wistfully reminiscing about communal acid trips and happy hippies cavorting around campfires, but he’s really a manipulative emotional cripple. When he invites his sort-of girlfriend, Kathleen (a worn-looking Catherine Keener), and her two misfit sons into their home as a shield against Rose’s rampant hormones, he ought to have been prepared for his daughter’s reaction. After all, she’s spent her whole life learning that problems are best solved with a shotgun.

Female coming-of-age, when addressed at all in American movies, is often portrayed as an overstimulated reaction to a sexual repression more believable in Edwardian novels than 21st-century teen culture. Perhaps Miller—daughter of Arthur and wife of Day-Lewis—is exorcizing some personal demons, but her ultimate lack of restraint is disastrous for the film. All the more credit, then, to a cast whose handling of Ballad’s hysterical narrative and inbred characters is, for the most part, laudably low-key. Day-Lewis, oozing commitment from every pore, gives Jack a defeated stoop and a flaring, exhausted temper. His scenes with Keener are beautifully understated—tiny oases of subtlety in a movie clanging with unruly emotions. “She’s so regular,” whines Rose on seeing Kathleen for the first time, unaware that’s exactly what her father (and, incidentally, the audience) needs.

Despite its theme of preservation versus progress, Ballad’s primary villain, a land developer named Marty Rance (Beau Bridges), is scripted with remarkable sympathy. Having labored for years in the shadow of younger brother Jeff, Beau has learned to excel in solid supporting roles, playing variations on Frank, the practical half of The Fabulous Baker Boys. Marty knows the monetary value of Jack’s land, but he also knows its emotional weight and why Jack is unable to relinquish it. In Bridges’ hands, Marty isn’t a monster but a rarity in films of this type: A capitalist with a heart.

The real villain, of course, is Jack himself. And by presenting him as a broken eco-warrior rather than the selfish control freak he really is, Ballad lets him off with a warning for all manner of contemptible behaviors. Ripe with symbolism (Moby-Dick rests prominently on Jack’s bedside table), the movie eventually devolves into a blur of original-sin signifiers, complete with a poisonous snake and a bloodied bedsheet. Someone must have eaten the apple.