Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor who seems to pick his roles carefully, and everything he does usually gets lots of attention. So when I checked his IMDB page a few months ago, I was a little bit surprised to hear that he’d made a movie from just a few years ago that I had never heard of. Since I’m a fan of what I’ve seen from Day-Lewis, I tracked down The Ballad of Jack and Rose. It’s a very small, quiet film, and it’s not especially accessible, so the fact that it hasn’t found a large audience is understandable. But I do think that is a shame, because, as you would expect, Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional here.
Day-Lewis plays Jack, while Camilla Belle plays his teenage daughter, Rose. Rose has had a very isolated, unconventional upbringing. She and Jack live on an old commune on a small island off the coast of the United States. Jack spends much of the film trying to prevent a housing development from ruining the island. Since he’s in poor health, he invites his girlfriend, Kathleen (played by Catherine Keener), and her two sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald) to come live with him and Rose. Rose isn’t used to any kind of guests at her house, let alone the permanent kind, so things go predictably awry almost as soon as they arrive.
The film is odd, to say the least. The relationship between Jack and Rose is set up to challenge the audience from the start. That being said, I think their “unconventional” relationship is handled well, and the questionable aspects of it really take a backburner throughout much of the story. The environmental aspect of the story is surprisingly well done. It’s not preachy. I questioned a lot of Jack’s actions to “protect” the island from the housing developments, but I was still fascinated by his passion and willingness to fight. Kathleen and her sons also provide a nice contrast to Rose and Jack’s isolated life, though they turn out to be nearly as messed up as our protagonists.
The acting is superb, for the most part. For such a small film, it has a pretty well-known, reliable cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most magnetic actors to watch on screen, and he’s amazing here, as usual. Jack’s certainly not a black and white character, and Day-Lewis plays every shade of grey perfectly. There are a couple of big, emotional scenes for him to work with, and he always strikes the perfect chord. It never feels melodramatic, which this film could have easily been. Catherine Keener also does a really nice job with a character that while being predictable, still brings a lot to the film. Ryan McDonald was one of the few unfamiliar faces here for me, and I found his performance very captivating. He plays the older of Kathleen’s sons. Rodney. He wants to be a woman’s hair dresser, and he’s a really fascinating character. He’s also the only remotely likeable person in the Jack/Kathleen makeshift family (though he is not perfect, by any means), and McDonald brings a lot of warmth, humour, and heart to the role. Jason Lee (yes, from My Name is Earl) even pops up in a tiny role as a plant delivery man, and I thought he gave an unexpectedly great performance, as tiny as it may have been. Camilla Belle was my one question mark in the cast. She gets points just because she managed to pull of the role. It’s tough material, and she’s sharing virtually every scene with Daniel Day-Lewis. That cannot be easy. I don’t think her acting was as great as it could have been if they’d gotten someone more at Ellen Page’s level, but Belle did an okay job.
The Ballad of Jack and Rose is not a perfect film. At times it feels a bit over-the-top (a scene involving an acid pad gets a bit ridiculous), and I would’ve liked to know more about some of the supporting characters. For example, Paul Dano’s character is a pretty messed up guy. I was expecting to learn more about him, but we never really do. Also, as previously mentioned, the characters aren’t very likeable. I’m all for some crazy, despicable characters, but most of these characters just felt blandly unpleasant. But I thought director Rebecca Miller (wife of Daniel Day-Lewis) definitely averted disaster. The relationship between Jack and Rose is clearly abnormal, and it gets into some sensitive areas. Some people might find some of the material a little squirmy, but the film does manage to keep that to a minimum, and never seems to exploit it. This film is certainly worth watching, if not just for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. Also, it’s a very nice film to look at. The scenery is lovely, and Miller takes great advantage of it. She captures that dreamy kind of world that hippies would have chosen to build their commune in. It’s a controversial film, in a way, but I found enough to like, and I thought it ultimately made a poignant statement.