First off, it’s something of a puzzle where The Ballad of Jack and Rose is set. Not that it’s all that important, but I think it’s interesting that one review I read identified it as an island “off the East Coast” and another identified it as an island “in the Pacific Northwest.”
It was filmed in Canada, and the main character has a strong Scottish accent, but it is indeed set somewhere in the U.S., because that character mentions something at one point about how long he’s been in America since emigrating from Scotland. And there’s a very brief epilogue in Vermont, which may or may not mean the rest of the movie took place relatively close to there.
I’m going to go with the East Coast, probably the coast of one of the New England states, as there are copperhead snakes in the movie, and I looked it up and they live in the eastern half of the U.S.
Anyway, this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role as an aging hippie/former commune dweller. He has become something of a hermit, ensconced in his house on an almost uninhabited island, railing against the houses being built on it that will despoil the local environment and bring new neighbors he wants no part of. He lives with his home-schooled sixteen year old daughter, who has had minimal contact with the outside world.
He has heart issues and knows he will likely die soon. Mostly because he thinks it’s time to provide some sort of family for his daughter, some practice for her in having human relationships since the only person with whom she’s had a significant relationship—him—will be gone soon, he convinces an ex-girlfriend, with her two sons, to move in with them.
The most effective part of the movie for me is the relationship between the father and daughter. Parts of it are arguably sappy—they sure as heck do a lot of crying and getting choked up—but mostly that got through to me. There are some very nice human moments, painful but touching as they anticipate his death.
And it’s an interestingly complex relationship. In some ways it’s a very positive, healthy relationship. There’s a comfort level, an obvious mutual love and appreciation. Each finds the other admirable, fascinating, and entertaining.
But at the same time there’s the element of guilt from the father or resentment from the daughter that he’s kept her sheltered and prevented her from having a normal life.
There’s also a sense, which the father turns out to be aware of and concerned by, that there may be something inappropriate, something potentially incestuous, in how close they are, how emotionally dependent they’ve become on each other, what feelings have developed between them. (I wasn’t clear if the one scene where things seem to be drifting that way actually happens or is the father dreaming.)
This comes out also in the way they react so harshly to any indication of sexual interest or activity from either of them with other people. To some extent you’d expect them to react negatively that way just from being father and daughter, but you wonder if there’s not a little added intensity because they’re also perceiving things in part the way a jealous lover would. And perhaps they’re aware of this and upset with themselves for having such feelings, which makes them even more volatile.
One of the things I liked about the movie is there always seems to be a lot going on beneath the surface with these characters. It feels like they have intriguing lives outside this movie, interesting personal histories that explain why they manifest the complex traits they do, and relate to each other as they do. Not just the father and daughter, but the girlfriend and her sons.
Even the developer guy who shows up late in the film and could easily have been played as a cartoon bad guy seems to have a little more going on within him.
The girlfriend in particular I became kind of curious about. You don’t get to know her as much as the two main characters, but there are a lot of interesting little clues about her psychological make-up and her history in what she does and says.
I felt myself liking the daughter less as the movie went on. She starts strong; some of the best scenes that I liked showing the loving father-daughter bond are early. Plus she’s really cute in the beginning, and then she gets her hair cut short like a boy. It’s amazing what an adverse effect that almost always has on an attractive girl.
As the story develops, I became more uncomfortable with her irrational, impulsive, erratic, irresponsible, sometimes cruel, borderline crazy streak. I know teenagers can be bad like that, and I know it’s understandable she’s going to react against her father bringing three new people into their household without consulting her, but her behavior goes beyond that.
And it’s also disturbing that some of her worst behavior seems to elicit a certain amount of admiration from other characters, like “Yeah, it’s kind of bad, but at the same time, you gotta love her spunk!” Whereas I thought a lot of her reckless and inconsiderate behavior was more unambiguously bad.
Maybe what I found least satisfying about the movie are the unrealistic elements. One being the aforementioned underreaction to the daughter’s antics. The girlfriend gets that there’s something wrong with her, but mostly her actions don’t have the kind of adverse consequences for her that you’d expect.
It’s also odd that law enforcement is so conspicuously absent. This guy shoots at construction workers to scare them off the island, knocks down houses, threatens the developer with physical violence, etc., and he’s treated as an admirable if out of touch curmudgeon fighting for what he believes in, when in real life he’d presumably be in jail.
The ending too sacrifices realism for dramatic effect. When the daughter finds her father has died in his sleep, she burns the house down and sets off into the world alone to start her adult life.
OK, but let’s think about this. Would she really not first take what she most values out of the house? Money? Important documents? Photos or other items of sentimental value? Heck, how about an overnight bag? They want to make it this grand impulsive gesture, but could even she be that imprudent and irresponsible?
And are there really no consequences to her burning down a house with a body in it? No one who will think that maybe that needs to be investigated and she needs to be questioned?
Overall I’d say The Ballad of Jack and Rose is an average to above average movie. I think of it as kind of like Forty Shades of Blue. It’s nothing great, but it’s a chance to spend some time with psychologically intriguing people and speculate about them and their relationships.
Now I want to go off on a quick tangent. One review I read criticized the movie for having some painfully obvious symbolism, such as a snake going into a hole in the wall in a room where people are having sex.
I confess, as “obvious” as that is, I didn’t notice it at the time. But that’s because I’m not looking for it.
In most cases, I don’t understand the point of symbolism. I don’t mean I don’t understand that a snake going into a hole can in some sense correspond to a penis going into a vagina; what I mean is I don’t understand the purpose of its presence. What do I learn about these characters, what’s better about the movie, if while certain action is going on, there’s something else that somehow represents it or corresponds to it happening at the same time?
In real life it wouldn’t hold any interest for me, because I’d recognize it as an irrelevant coincidence that there was a snake going into a hole at the same time people were having sex. But when instead it’s inserted intentionally in a work of fiction for artistic reasons, what is the appropriate reaction? Why is it there; why should I care it’s there?
Is there no point at all besides as an intellectual exercise? Is it like asking what “purpose” a word search puzzle or a crossword puzzle serves? (None, except they can be fun or intellectually stimulating as challenges.) Is that why “obvious” symbolism is bad, because you get no sense of accomplishment from spotting it?
I’m definitely not in tune with this stuff when I’m watching a movie, but for the most part my position is, “Why should I be?”