They could be Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, clothed but innocent nonetheless, lying peaceably on their backs surrounded by wild greenery and looking up at wild blueness — that’s how complete, contained, and contented a couple the unknown man and woman appear to be in the opening moments of Rebecca Miller’s artistically and personally mature drama The Ballad of Jack & Rose. The sinewy, graying man with the ripe Scottish accent, we learn, is Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis); the younger woman is Rose (Camilla Belle from Practical Magic), and the two relate to one another with the rightness of nestling cups. That their relationship isn’t immediately clear — it turns out the two are chaste father and daughter, not lovers — is part of this ballad’s mournful melody. Miller’s theme is innocence, the loss of it, and the reclamation of equanimity in the face of that loss, and the music she makes is haunting.
The filmmaker sets her dyad in a patch of unspoiled country on an unnamed East Coast island, the remains of a commune in which Jack is now the sole caretaker of an all-but-dead ideal; a slick land developer (Beau Bridges) has already begun building on the edge of Jack’s property. Indeed, Jack is dying too, of a bad heart, and he’s angry about the world he cannot put in order; he also feels helpless about the beloved daughter who will soon be parentless.
Rose’s welfare is as much a consideration as his own domestic companionship when Jack invites Kathleen (Catherine Keener, conveying a whole, complex woman in just a few scenes), his casual girlfriend on the mainland, and her two sons (Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano) to move in. But Rose is not pleased to share her world with anyone new. Jack’s little girl is becoming a woman — competitive, possessive, potent, arousing and arousable. And she lashes out at her noncommune — and particularly at the adult woman now in her father’s bed — in a sequence of chaos-inducing maneuvers that also happen to be perfectly chosen: A venomous snake intentionally set loose is about as boldly symbol-laden a gesture as a storyteller can make, and Miller takes confident, authoritative charge of the mythological, biblical, and sexual implications. She also displays a keen understanding of the intersection between teenage lust and fear.
As in Miller’s two previous films, Personal Velocity and Angela, The Ballad of Jack & Rose is as much a conjuring of moods and textures as it is of moving characters. Miller’s directorial eye favors a kind of singsongy wandering from notion to notion, with plenty of time to literally pause and smell the flowers — rhythms that both Day-Lewis and Belle respond to as if breathing in unison. (The excellent cinematographer Ellen Kuras has worked on all three of Miller’s pictures.) Of course, as the filmmaker’s husband, Day-Lewis may be especially attuned to his wife’s respirational style — besides, he has a rare talent for creating a character from the breath out — but it’s worth admiring how his Jack is a man built out of an exceptionally delicate network of life’s gains and losses, and how each tendril is visible in this lovely performance. For a teenage actress, on the other hand, Camilla Belle’s gift for playing a young woman of similar age with such control of the elements of uncontrollable young womanhood, so to speak, is a marvel.