After making a minor splash with 2002’s sensuous feminist triptych Personal Velocity, director Rebecca Miller has yet to register strongly on the film world’s radar again. That’s unfortunate because her follow-up, 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose, remains an overlooked gem. Retaining the earthy tactility of the previous feature, this effort is simultaneously more intimately focused and more grandly ambitious, as visually rewarding as it is morally challenging.
Camilla Belle, perhaps best known for toplining the When a Stranger Calls remake the following year, stars as Rose, who lives on a former hippie commune with her current hippie father, Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis), and no one else. When Jack starts to suffer from some unknown but apparently terminal ailment, though, he asks his girlfriend from the nearby town, Kathleen (Catherine Keener), to move in. She brings along her two sons, sensitive Rodney (Ryan McDonald) and rebellious brute Thaddius (Paul Dano). Finding the delicate, two-part emotional ecosystem she’s known her whole life suddenly upended, Rose begins to act out in unhealthy and violent ways toward everyone, including herself, in an attempt to reestablish the primacy of her relationship with her father.
What begins as a psychological examination of childhood isolation and parental over-attachment becomes something even deeper and more discomforting as hints of incestuous longing begin to creep into Rose’s behavior. From a narrative standpoint, you’ll probably see early on where The Ballad of Jack and Rose is headed but plot surprises are not the point here. With Rose’s outrageous behavior and Miller’s stark symbolism (a venomous snake represents probably every single thing you can imagine it might), the film is both exaggerated and scaled down, like an opera you can put on a shelf.