Writer-director Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity) has an aptitude for incisively drawn characters, yet The Ballad of Jack and Rose also highlights her frustrating proclivity for overly dreamy, precious storytelling. Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis), a utopian environmentalist disgusted by the earth-ravaging “progress” of modern society, lives with his teenage daughter Rose (the sweet Camilla Belle) in an abandoned commune he built during the 1960s on an island off the U.S.’s East Coast. Sheltered from everyday civilization, Jack and Rose are like a parent/progeny version of Adam and Eve, attempting to continue Jack’s youthful dream of “reinventing” society by promoting an intimate relationship with nature and a spirit of selfless togetherness. Jack, however, is dying, and Rose—who has been kept ignorant of the real world, or of the coming puberty that will awaken heretofore unstirred desires—is suicidal at the thought of being left alone in the world, and thus clings to her beloved dad by disquietingly emulating his flannel fashion and hairstyle.
Though partly concerned with Rose’s burgeoning coming-of-age, Miller’s film expands its purview to include a more intriguing—and disquietingly bizarre—portrait of misguided romanticism in which Jack’s stranglehold on Rose’s heart leads to the secluded, innocent girl’s unnatural incestuous longing. Fearful of abandoning Rose after his passing, Jack invites his girlfriend Kathleen (Catherine Keener) and her two sons (Paul Dano’s rebel Thadius and Ryan McDonald’s chubby hairdresser Rodney) to live with them at the commune, sparking tension between the isolated father and daughter. Miller creates a sense of ethereal unease through downy cinematography and rhythmical fades, but while her dialogue is unaffected, her symbolism—characterized by moments such as a snake slithering into a hole in the wall during Rose’s deflowering—is earnestly inelegant. The director’s often-clunky (and crunchy) imagery, however, doesn’t interfere with Day-Lewis’s wrenchingly naturalistic performance as the physically and emotionally withered Jack, a man blinded by fanaticism and unable (at least initially) to grasp that he’s an egotistical snob uninterested in the consequences of his actions, just like Marty Rance (Beau Bridges), the corporate prick who’s developing cookie-cutter housing communities on the island. “The important thing is, you have to forgive everybody,” says Ryan’s friend Red Berry (Jena Malone), a sentiment key to Jack and Rose’s eventual acceptance of the necessity for familial separation. Yet more lasting than its somewhat slushy depiction of female maturation is The Ballad of Jack and Rose’s recognition that idealism, no matter how noble or well-intentioned, doesn’t preclude injurious selfishness.