Living a solitary island life in an abandoned hippie commune off the East Coast, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his teenage daughter Rose (Camilla Belle, "The Invisible Circus") have developed a tight, mildly obsessive father-daughter bond. Wary of encroaching land developers and battling an ailing heart, Jack invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) to come live on the island for emergency purposes. Arriving with her two sons (Paul Dano and Ryan McDonald), Kathleen's entrance immediately registers as a threat to Rose, whose loose grip on sanity is tested as she dreams of increasingly vivid ways to get rid of this unfamiliar woman.
For her third film, writer/director Rebecca Miller (daughter of the recently deceased playwright Arthur Miller) has finally lost her mind. After trying to capture the emotional workings of relationships in the dazzling "Personal Velocity" and "Angela," Miller has decided to get highly theatrical with her screenwriting and direction. "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" (IMDb listing) is Miller's attempt to channel Lars von Trier's particular brand of symbolism and chaotic human interaction. As an investigation of disturbing behavior, the film is near perfect. As a dramatic creation, Miller's inventive filmmaking skills have failed her.
"Jack and Rose" is a film of immense peculiarity. Miller has devised a film that addresses all types of behavioral and community issues, and smashed them into one film. The stress of the ideas weigh heavily on the plot, which touches on lost hippie idealism, forbidden incestuous thoughts, and violent jealousy. The cast is game to let Miller lead them along on this winding road, but her focus fuzzes out toward the end, leaving a great range of themes only half realized. Miller also doesn't do her creation many favors by pitching the material so broadly, complete with a symbolic biblical snake slithering around the compound. It's an interesting von Trierish move to add some hysteria into the movie, but it comes off as strained ornamentation when the performances and interpersonal dynamics are so rich and gripping by themselves.
Enlisting husband Daniel Day-Lewis back into acting (this is just his second film in eight years) was an excellent move on Miller's part as it injects "Jack and Rose" with some authentic poignancy. After his towering acting achievement in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" (one of the best performances of the last 10 years), Day-Lewis' Jack isn't as bombastic as Bill the Butcher, but the performance radiates with Jack's violent, disintegrating idealized view of America, and the country's lost potential. The audience can feel his anger and disappointment with suburban sprawl, as well as his frustrations dealing with his psychotic daughter. It's a great performance, and it works beautifully with Camilla Belle's poison ivy Rose to create a portrait of a dangerous familial relationship, where death is seemingly (and claustrophobically) the only possible closure to this story.
Miller captures behavior so expertly that when the story starts to take over, as seen in Jack's struggle with a greedy land developer (Beau Bridges), the film visibly sags and starts to get grabby with motivations. There's an interesting, unique character exploration under this cloudy film, but it's worth the sit to witness the insanity.
Filmfodder Grade: B