Saturday, June 11

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

[Spoilers within]

This Rebecca Miller movie (script and direction) is a love story, but without much love. The briefest possible plot summary: Jack Salvin (Daniel Day-Lewis) suffers from a bad heart and a smoking habit. He's an aging, independently weathy hippie -- the last surviving member of a communal experiment in peace and freedom. The only viable upshot of the commune is Rose Slavin (Camille Belle), his daughter. Jack knows he may die. Not even their obvious romance with one another will keep him alive.

This is such a cool yet intimate movie that it impressed me as a foreign film born in America. Hard headed, stylish, and controlled in its use of visual metaphor, Miller's movie still lacks two important elements. A protagonist that viewers care about, and a sense of inevitability.

Jack or Rose are the only good candidates for the movies' protagonist. You could argue that together they form a unit, a protagonist twinned. But that's facile, and their battle after all is not with death or separation. It is with each other.

From the earliest moments of the movie, we doubt Jack Slavin. Dying, sure, that's going to cost him. But his affection for Rose and his expressions of it make us suspicious that, even if his conscience is clean, he loves his daughter in ways that will mar her forever.

Jack invites his friend-with-benefits Kathleen (Katherine Keener) to bring some respectability to their home by moving in. Jack writes her a check -- an "early retirement" he calls it. She agrees to his belated, half-hearted attempt to protect his daughter from rumor and his opaque, consuming personality. Instead, Kathleen and her two sons, Thaddeus (Paul Dano) and Rodney (Ryan McDonald), bring the knowlege of good and evil to Jack and Rose's Eden. And when Jack finally must choose between Kathleen and Rose, we never doubt that he'll choose his daughter. But rather than struggle, he buys Kathleen out.

Rose, on the other hand, is as devoted, knowing, and defiant as the lover of any king. She first strikes back at Jack's "transaction" by giving up her virginity to the sullen and pasty Thaddeus. Is she a victim of his abuse? Objectively, yes. Does she suffer because of it? No. Is Rose force to see and stand against Jack's failures? No.

What are we to think of a young woman who only cares about her father? She does not make her own fate in this movie. She is all reaction and defense. Jack, for that matter, is simply following the fate he set in motion years earlier. Youth alone puts all of the choices in Rose's hands. And then there's the money. A storm foreshadows the move-in, Rose's childhood treehouse and refuge tumbles down. "A new chapter," Jack says. Rose learns nothing new from it. I though Camille Belle's Rose was beautiful, occasionally fascinating, often impassive. But it wasn't her story The Ballad was following.

Jack dies. Like the Norse kings, he is cremated on the pyre of his own battleship -- his commune outpost off the coast of Canada. Rose nearly surprises us with an act of senseless devotion (I'm holding back the movie's most suspenseful moment.) And the ending. Oh, the ending! Why did I not care about that coda?

Jack and Rose don't want anything, except to be left alone. What could we want for them? As their characters reveal themselves, they bolster and care for one another. Inappropriate and suspicious in its old-marrieds tone, yes, but not repellent. What will Jack's death do to Rose? Financially, she'll be fine. Emotionally, we don't know what she'll need, lose, or suffer. That ending doesn't give us any indication of how we might feel for Rose. She appears content, busy -- neither better nor worse for the experience.

Kathleen's older son Rodney provided a sparkling sidelight throughout the movie. In a world of mammals operating on instinct, Rodney -- self-conscious, wounded, witty -- knew what he was looking at. "I think you're tremendous," he says to Rose on parting at the dock. "Innocent people are dangerous. I don't think I've met one before." Rodney's vulnerability made him the most trustworthy character in the movie, and the most interesting to follow.

Jack must die. Rose must go on. Rodney was changed by the experience. I'd like to see Rodney's movie.