We all have different ideas about what constitutes ‘paradise’. Some people love the hustle and bustle of big cities, while others prefer the quiet subdued country life. For Jack Slavin (Daniel Day Lewis), utopia is living in seclusion on an island off the east coast, spending most of his time with his naïve and oppressed teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). But it’s not quite as perverted as it sounds. Not entirely.
Jack loves his daughter more than anything, and she grows to love him back in a semi inappropriate manner, due to her complete isolation from society and normal circumstances. She doesn’t fully grasp the concept of lust or sex, or the difference between familial love and romantic infatuations. In fact, she has never even had a real friend.
Their lifestyle is the result of an experiment launched by Jack to bring life back to the fundamentals. After inheriting a business from his father and selling it for a large sum of money, he builds a huge house on a commune, away from the technological advancements of the outside world. He raises Rose in this environment to live a simple, uncomplicated life, with her morals intact. However, by preventing her from living a typical life, he stunts her emotional progress and winds up with a girl with a big, bad case of the crazies.
When without warning, Jack’s girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) moves into their house with her two sons, Rose is overcome with feelings of jealousy and betrayal. One evening while spying, she witnesses her dad making love to Kathleen. She reacts by throwing herself at one of the sons, Rodney (Ryan McDonald). He politely declines, and seems to be more aroused by the experience of cutting her hair: an obvious symbol of upcoming change for those who have never seen a movie before. Later in the film, when she loses her virginity to the other brother, Thaddius (Paul Dano), she leaves her bloody stained sheets dangling in the wind, for her father’s viewing pleasure. Horrified and astonished by her newfound rebellious behavior, he demands an explanation, to which she replies, “I got you back; now we are even”.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a very strange movie, but one that gets under your skin and refuses to shift. It makes a strong political statement that radical extremes on either end of the spectrum do not generally yield positive results. The cinematography is fantastic, with long breathtaking shots on location at Prince Edward Island. The soundtrack is filled with hypnotic classic tunes, including the nasally vocal emissions of Bob Dylan. Watching this movie, although set in the 1980s, makes you feel like you’re vicariously living on a 1960’s hippie commune, staring at the sky, listening to music, and enjoying an escapist drug-induced haze.
Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most talented working actors around, and his latest performance is no exception. The camera is madly in love with him and he is a true chameleon, expressing such a wide range of emotion that he’ll leave you in awe. I often feel like a silly little schoolgirl watching his movies, his incredible talent is sexier to me than all of the washboard abs in Hollywood combined. While generally speaking, casting your husband in the lead role of a movie is a misstep, writer/director Rebecca Miller knew exactly what she was doing. He is the film’s strongest asset, and makes any flaws easier to overlook and forgive. Catherine Keener turns in a solid supporting performance, playing against type as a vulnerable and at times superficial woman trying to keep things together. Seeing her portray a character without a single trace of sarcasm is a peculiar experience, nearly as peculiar as watching Jason Lee play a guy with a fondness for flowers.
Similar to creative childhood expression, The Ballad of Jack and Rose succeeds most when it is coloring outside the lines. Much of it pushes the envelope and provokes extensive thought, which only makes the film’s clumsy finale seem even more unsatisfying. I felt cheated, like a less competent writer came in and wrote a lazy, clichéd conclusion in place of the previously approved, superior one. Shortcomings aside, the mesmerizing aesthetics of the film are indisputable, and I was swept away into an entrancing world that was all at once unfamiliar, disturbing, and uniquely engaging.