Directed by Rebecca Miller
Jack and his daughter Rose live together on an isolated, mostly self-sustaining community that once housed dozens of young, free-spirited hippies. He is dying, and she has it in mind to kill herself when he does. If her pronouncement frightens him, he doesn’t show it. Instead Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) quietly resolves to bring more people into their lives, a bridge he hopes to build so that Rose (Camilla Belle) might better prepare for life after he’s gone.
There is an unsettling intimacy between Jack and Rose, and he seems to know it. She will use physical connection as a way of playing games and conducting “experiments” with Jack as her target. She uses the two teenaged sons of Jack’s girlfriend, Kathleen (Catherine Keener) as tools in this matter. Not long after these go south, Jack and Rose will be alone together yet again.
She is no longer a child, and he’s the one who can tell, long before she can. Her affection for him, as she has gotten older, has suddenly become more… charged with something bordering on incestuous. She loves him, but the way she regards him in this film is less like a father and more like a cross between lover and Christ-like figure. She intends to be close to him at all times and then to die by his side. It’s the stuff of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
When Kathleen then comes into the picture, Jack’s mainland girlfriend whom he has suddenly invited to live with them (unbeknownst to Rose), Rose will try to murder her. She at first startles the older couple with a rifle blast in their bedroom, and Kathleen, trying her best to understand Rose, plays it off as a joke. Rose quietly tells her it was no joke. Later she will release a snake in an effort to kill Kathleen.
Just describing this makes me think the movie should be a lot more tumultuous than it is. Yes all these things happen, and yes there are a few similarities between Rose and ‘Kevin’ from We Need to Talk About Kevin, a story about a young psychopath and the torment he inflicts on his mother, but The Ballad of Jack and Rose marches to a different beat.
It forces us to understand their relationship, to feel their rhythms and to even romanticize their isolation, like they are the only two people left on Earth. Then it abruptly shows us Rose from the perspective of an outsider, how perhaps deranged but certainly unsettling their connection is.
It reminded me a lot of 2018’s Leave No Trace, another father/daughter film in which the father lives by a certain code that his daughter was born into. Then outside events will conspire to bring them back into society and to see how that affects their relationship. It’s a great film.
I think The Ballad of Jack and Rose falls too often into melodrama, but maybe that was inevitable given the subject material. I have a feeling half the audience will roll their eyes at these characters and the other half will fall in love with them. They are coiled, curdled and high-strung, manifestations of moral codes and sexual impulses, things that have been given to them from above (be it a higher power or a parent) and impulses, both physical and otherwise, that they struggle to control.
It’s some combination of nature versus nurture, the factors from outside that force us into a certain shape and then the other factors from within that don’t always conform to the shape we’ve been made into.
In the end it amounts to a tumultuous coming of age drama, but I think the material, the characters and their actions here are too wild to be contained by the familiar coming of age story arc. Or maybe adolescence really is just that messy.
Up Next: Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019), Pacific Heights (1990), Seconds (1966)