False Note: Day-Lewis Smells Like a Rose, While Ballad Reeks


What does it mean to give a wholly convincing performance from an untenable script? Does the feat confirm the supremacy of the living word over the frozen text? Or is the acting merely earnest salesmanship of shoddy merchandise? It’s an inquiry that might especially interest Daniel Day-Lewis, whose famously immersive process surpasses the artistic and enters the realm of the metabolic. As the dying hippie farmer in wife Rebecca Miller’s
The Ballad of Jack & Rose, Day-Lewis—an ambling scarecrow under boater and musty cloth coat—is as rooted as an oak in his character and milieu, yet easefully disengaged from the film’s pensive histrionics. His turn as lifestyle extremist Jack carries an authentic scent of tobacco and peat while much of the movie smells of the lamp.

Scotsman Jack is a trained engineer with a big inheritance whose uncompromising environmental principles have led him from communal living in the ’60s and ’70s to proud isolation by the film’s present day of 1986. He and his 16-year-old daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), play Adam and Eve on an unidentified “island off the East Coast” of North America (lovingly captured in the redoubtable Ellen Kuras’s agile, sun-burnished cinematography). Cuddling in bed and gazing into each other’s eyes, the adoring father and daughter produce a discomfiting sexual frisson. His days numbered by a coronary ailment, Jack hastens the Fall by paying his semi-girlfriend, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), to move into his earth-covered, energy-efficient house with her pair of reluctant teenage sons. Rudely displaced as crypto-wife and caretaker, and profoundly unsocialized to boot, Rose effects her confused revenge: She launches twin seduction attacks on Kathleen’s boys and even fires a rifle in the newly domesticated couple’s bedroom. She gets it from her father: Jack uses a gun to scatter construction workers building new model homes on nearby de-protected wetlands.

As Jack’s waning heart beats out the last faint pulses of a lost cause, writer-director Miller delivers a frankly unnecessary critical autopsy of failed nature-child ideals (I know environmentalism is dead, I heard it on NPR a few weeks ago). Rose’s petulant theatrics don’t bespeak the perils of boundary-free parenting so much as a mental disorder, or a coarse screenplay. One of Kathleen’s sons explains all: “Innocent people are just, uh, dangerous, I guess.” But not too dangerous: This
Ballad strikes a final note of prosaic humility, even if Miller all along has been promising The Wreck of the Hesperus
with a Dylan score.