`The Ballad of Jack' is an ode to the lost American dream


April 22, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Like a soldier squirreled away in a bunker months after the end of a war, the tortured hero of Rebecca Miller's The Ballad of Jack and Rose remains on an island commune in 1986, a decade after the waning of the counterculture.

A Scottish engineer, Jack knows America isn't the country he hoped it would become when he bought his land, applied for citizenship and established his radical enclave. But staying self-sufficient, keeping his distance from commercial pressures and commercial culture make him feel as if he can save his soul - and protect his teenage daughter, Rose, from the ugliness of the outside world.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose tells the anguished story of a man suffering from an existential hangover.

But it's also Miller's love letter to the talent of her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Jack. And he lives up to it - gloriously. From his start in films 20 years ago, Day-Lewis has been a master of comedy and tragedy, also a changeling able to morph in a matter of months from the gay street kid of My Beautiful Laundrette to the literate brain-surgeon lothario of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

With an actor this versatile, it's difficult to note the thread of personality that makes a string of roles cohere. With Day-Lewis, it's a high-animal purity, a blend of instinct and integrity - whether he plays it for heroism in The Last of the Mohicans and The Boxer, or undercuts it for comedy in A Room With a View or converts it to villainy in The Gangs of New York. His physicality, soulfulness and brilliance make him the heir to Brando and Olivier.

You can read his thoughts and his feelings in his face, his posture and his hands. And that's heartbreakingly true in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, when internal tensions tear his tiny family apart and reality shreds his convictions.

Jack realizes that isolating himself with his daughter has created an unnatural idyll and triggered incestuous longings in each of them. He scatters workers with a rifle shot as they build a development on nearby wetlands, but doubt chips at his ecological certainty even after he razes a model home.

Taking meds for a deteriorating heart, he worries that he won't leave Rose with a stable world-away-from-the-world. To keep his hippie oasis afloat just a bit longer, he invites his mainland girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to join them with her sons - a punk, Thaddius (Paul Dano), who is all surliness and surging hormones, and a nice guy, Rodney (Ryan McDonald), an obese would-be hairdresser.

It's a prescription for domestic disaster. But Jack's lunging attempt to salvage the end of his life and secure his daughter's future is true to his character. He sees life as an experiment, and he's one utopian planner who builds chaos into his theories.

Kathleen proves to be a conventional nurturing woman, albeit in designer jeans - with Rodney's father dead and Thaddius' dad a complete loser, she's like the heroine of a country song.

Thaddius takes any favors he can get, including those of a free spirit called Red Berry (Jena Malone, an actor so gifted she makes fecklessness engaging). When Rose throws herself at Rodney, he offers an alternative to sex: he bobs her hair. The only forbidden candy he dreams of is made of chocolate.

Jack believes that people should live with other people who are not just like themselves. But until now he hasn't put it into practice. So Rose's plans to sabotage the new arrangement are immediate and extreme. If she can't scare off her dad's lover with a gunshot she'll lose her virginity with one of Kathleen's sons, and make sure that Jack will know about it. Her desperation brings home how precious her life has been, in the best and worst sense of precious.

Camilla Belle, as Rose, masters the inchoate - in nearly every scene she pulls a new mixed emotion out of her heart. And Day-Lewis partners her beautifully: with a sudden bump in his soft brogue or hint of moisture in his eye, he elucidates the unstated feelings that fly between them.

Day-Lewis gives Jack's modulations the added weight of adult responsibility. His sighs and pangs and weary, determined glares evoke those double-edged Beatles lines, "Boy, you gotta carry that weight/ Carry that weight a long time."

Miller doesn't romanticize Jack as a leader of lost causes; she shows why they were lost. Humanity wasn't meant for utopias. Jack wasn't meant for a commune. He wants his own way too much. In the end, he recognizes that his crusade against development was partly snobbish - and that his struggle to keep Rose to himself was tainted, too. Yet Day-Lewis makes Jack's failure our own.

Those first-rate actors Jason Lee and Beau Bridges deftly fill out the roles of a modest, good-hearted florist and a determined, personally decent housing developer.

But Jack - rail-thin, racked with disappointment and disease - is still bigger than they are. He encompasses our sometimes blind and twisted aspirations. His downfall is a setback for all men of vision.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose is a stinging elegy for lost American dreams.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Catherine Keener and Camilla Belle

Directed by Rebecca Miller

Rated R (language, sexuality, drug use)

Released by IFC Films

Time 118 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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